Wherever Joe Tamargo goes, people stare at his forearms. He likes it that way. Years ago, Tamargo, a resident of Rochester, New York, auctioned off space on his arms, transforming himself into a human billboard. “I just thought that would be the most visible place possible for people,” he told me. Today, they’re covered in tattoos bearing the logos of 15 different websites.
“When I tell them the story, they’re like, ‘Yo, that’s pretty cool. I’m going to check out those websites,’” Tamargo, 38, says of people who see him in public. “And then they get there and there’s nothing on the website.” Tamargo is not just a walking advertisement. He’s a walking advertisement for businesses that no longer exist.
Energetic dot-coms flush with startup cash were known in the late 1990s and 2000s for their marketing stunts. Of course, many of those businesses imploded. But unlike their expensive Super Bowl ads, tattoos aren’t so ephemeral. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of people out there with the domain names of defunct websites etched prominently and permanently on their skin, the walking detritus of zombie websites’ marketing campaigns.
Dot-com “skinvertising” — a term somebody came up with when it was still a thing — was a media sensation in the mid-2000s. In 2003, the first advertising space of this kind was sold on the back of the head of an Illinois man named Jim Nelson. A Web hosting company then known as CI Host paid $7,000 for the space. Nelson signed a contract stating that he would keep the tattoo for at least five years.
Invariably, the only businesses crazy enough to pay for these things were dotcoms. Blue-chip companies didn’t want to be associated with such base stunts and the controversy engendered by purchasing human flesh to sell products. Eventually, reporters, news consumers, and people willing to buy or sell skin ads tired of these “news of the weird” tattoo stories, and the trend died out by the late 2000s. So did most of the dot-coms. But many of the tattoos are still around.