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Designing a Tattoo Using Neural Networks

When I design a tattoo I like it to mean something personally to me. I also like for it to be unique, and to reflect my personality. With that in mind, I hoped to create a tattoo that would show some of the things I had learned here at OSU, while I was getting my PhD. I think I’ve been able to pull that off, and I’ll try to detail a little about how I made the tattoo here in this blog post.

Getting the Structure

The base of the tattoo is a DNA structure. When structural biologists solve a structure for a molecule, they then have to decide how to represent that structure when making figures or even thinking about it while making predictions. One common representation is to simply display each of the atoms as small spheres. In this case, that’s what I decided would look best for the tattoo, and I liked how it kept things pretty simple.

To decide the colours I would use, I took advice from one of my favourite websites, Color Brewer. You can see this first visualization below:

An example of another type of visualization that might be valid as well is called a surface view, which shows the water-accessible surface of the molecule.

One of the aspects I like best about using this actual experimentally solved structure as the basis for this tattoo, is that many of the observed bond angles and other geometric details (like base pair planarity) are very non-ideal. Often when people represent DNA or proteins, they treat everything as if it exists in some perfect state that conforms to our best theories. In reality it is never so simple. Strain and tension within these structures often dictates that they deform and twist away from ideal geometry, and this structure is a great example of that.

Computer, make art!

What I had now was a passable, interesting image of DNA. What I wanted was something striking and visually cool as well. Since I’ve been here, getting my PhD, I’ve learned a lot of programming and computer science. I’ve found that I really enjoy it, and I am glad I’ve been able to apply it to my own research. One of the developments I’ve been following and always found interesting is the ability of trained neural networks to lift the style from one art image, and apply it to another content image. So that’s what I decided to do with this DNA image.

To start, I messed around with a style called “low-poly”, where you essentially try to recreate the image as it exists, but using only simply coloured triangles.

I made a few different versions of this.

Then, in order to not lose the original meaning altogether, I blended these low-poly images with the original, while strengthening the black lines of the spheres.

Now I had the base image I liked, and I could begin to style it using neural networks. To do this, I used the chainer implementation of the neural style algorithm.

I began to experiment with different artistic styles.

Finally, I worked to blend these together and layer them in a way that I was happy with, while trimming the edges and cleaning up a few artifacts:

The final product. (at a lower resolution for this
post)

Getting the Tattoo!

After sitting on the design for a year to decide if I really wanted it or not, I decided to go for it. I found my artist: Melody McBrayer, and we got to work.

I can only say that Melody did a fantastic job, and I can’t believe how well she has been able to capture all the strange details in this tattoo. In the first session, we did all the line-work; I’ll need to come back later to get the color, once I’ve healed.

Looking a little raw, because it
is.

Update: June 2 2017

Mostly healed.

Once the linework was more or less healed, I was able to return and get the tattoo colored in a second session!

Here are some photos of me getting the tattoo coloured:

Just starting out!

3 hours and 45 minutes in. The greens took the
longest.

All in all it was quite a long session, but the finished product was worth it!

It’s still healing somewhat, but here is the more or less final product:

Once again, big thanks to Melody at Anchored Ink Eugene for pulling it off. I hadn’t quite realized what an undertaking this would be, but I couldn’t be happier with the end result!