Extinction Empathy Tattoos Commemorate Less Charismatic Species

©. Samantha Dempsey

Most of our readers will know how polar bears are threatened by global warming and that elephants populations are shrinking because of ivory poaching. But did you know that the St. Helena giant earwig, the longest earwig species, hasn't been seen alive since 1967?

St. Helena giant earwig

© Samantha Dempsey
Illustrator Samantha Dempsey wanted to bring attention to the un-charismatic creatures that have gone extinct. She created species empathy tattoos, which are temporary tattoos to honor animals that have disappeared. Her work combines the tradition of memorial tattoos with the exquisite detail one might find in an illustrated field guide.

Dempsey was motivated to create the tattoos while studying genetic diversity. "Everyone hears about the giant panda's plight, but I came to realize that you never hear about the ugly animals," Dempsey said. "They are all equally important for the planet's biodiversity."

extinct shrimp tattoo

© Samantha Dempsey
The series commemorates the St. Helena giant earwig, the oblong rock snail and a species of shrimp that once lived in the drainage basin of the Los Angeles River. Dempsey said that while it was important to her to find animals that most would consider ugly, each creature still has something that attracted her, like the earwig's big pincers and the shrimps curling antennae. She adds that each animal "is beautiful in its importance to the biosphere."

Still in its concept phase, Dempsey printed a small run of temporary tattoos and handed them out at a farmer's market. They proved to be very popular. "They were gone within first 20 minutes," she said.

syncaris pasadenae

© Samantha Dempsey
The project also includes posters, which feature models wearing the tattoos. Dempsey is now looking for a partner that can help her print more posters and tattoos. She would also like to design commemorations for other species from overlooked habitats, such as "deep sea hot springs or other places that we don't pay attention to."

oblong rock snail tattoo

© Samantha Dempsey
Dempsey is a recent graduate of RISD's illustration program, and has a minor is science communication. She hopes to continue working on environmental projects. See more of her work here.