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.
One of Tamargo’s tattoos is for SaveMartha.com, a site that was dedicated to keeping Martha Stewart out of prison following her indictment for securities fraud. Stewart went to prison. Stewart got out of prison. And yet Tamargo still has a tattoo imploring you to save her. He has tried to buy one of the defunct domain names on his arm, pilldaddy.com, a former online Viagra purveyor, and do something with it. He was unsuccessful. He doesn’t see himself getting the tattoos removed anytime soon.
“Don’t get me wrong, it kind of feels funny,” Mark Greenlaw told me of the defunct Web address inked in his skin. Greenlaw, now 32, sold space on his neck on eBay in early 2006. The winning bidder, a hosting company called Glob@t, had Greenlaw get a tattoo for their defyinggravity.com site. A video of the occasion still exists, fittingly for when it was taken, on Google Video. Greenlaw says he needed the money because he joined the Army, and during “basic training, you really don't make nothing, so I wanted to make sure that my wife and kids had money while I was off training.”
Then there’s the case of perhaps the world’s most famous skinvertiser, Karolyne Smith (now Karolyne Williams), a young, blonde Utah mother who took her turn on the morning talk show circuit when she sold ad space on her forehead in 2005 to online casino GoldenPalace.com for $10,000. She said she needed the money to finance private schooling for her young son. It’s unclear how long that money lasted, but Facebook photos show that the tattoo, now slightly faded, remains between her bangs. She wrote in a recent post that she’s been forced to move into the basement of her father’s house. (Smith didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article.)
GoldenPalace.com was in the stunt marketing game for many years, though online-gambling laws now make using the site illegal in the U.S. — and in many states you can’t even access the URL on Williams’ forehead. GoldenPalace.com also purchased space on Tamargo’s arm and on the back of an Alaskan man now named Hostgator Dotcom.
Dotcom, now 31, sold the ad to GoldenPalace.com after deciding to donate his kidney to a total stranger — he needed money to cover his bills while recovering from the surgery, he says. Dotcom returned to selling ads on himself when the recession hit. “I did it to make sure my kids wouldn't be homeless,” said the father of five. Dotcom, who also works as a courier to make ends meet, says he now has 37 tattoos, many of them on his face. He may be one of the only people in the world still selling ad space on his body today. Perhaps because the media attention surrounding skinvertising has dissipated, he has to hustle to move the inventory left on his body, contacting websites directly to inquire about advertising.
Dotcom took part in another stunt marketing tactic that had ignited a media storm in the mid-2000s: selling the rights to his name, which originally was Billy Gibby. The Internet was now offering everyday people the chance to sell to marketers directly, and they took advantage of it in interesting ways. In addition to more permanent moves like tattoos and name changes, other gimmicks popped up in the media like selling ad space on one's daily wardrobe and "The Million Dollar Homepage," a single Web page filled with small banner ads in a million-pixel block, sold off at $1 a pixel.
Gibby's name went to Web-hosting service HostGator.com. He’s currently trying to broker deals to add other websites to his name. In addition to offering BuzzFeed an ad on his forehead for $800 when I talked to him, Dotcom offered to change his full name to "Buzzfeeddotcom Buzzfeeddotcom Buzzfeeddotcom."
Doing all this for his family is quite literally selfless — in selling his face and his name, he’s sold perhaps the two most defining traits of one’s sense of self. How does it feel to be a company that owns someone like this? I don’t know. None of the companies mentioned in this piece that still exist would respond to requests for comment.
As the economy changes, the working class that once powered the nation’s manufacturing economy sees their options dissipating, and dotcoms and the tech industry at large, like many of the new ventures that drive the future economy, have little use for the less educated. What some of these companies could make of these humans, apparently, is objects — walking billboards for their brand. Still, the skinvertisers I managed to track down to have no regrets.
Tamargo and Greenlaw, who both own small businesses now, said they would never sell another tattoo, at least not for the same amount of money. But they take pride in providing for their families (Tamargo claims he made over $220,000 when he was still selling ads), and the tattoos are a permanent reminder of that.
Dotcom, who is still selling ink on himself, keeps track of all the websites on his body and simply covers up those that go defunct with a tattoo from a new buyer. He thinks he may one day sell a tattoo for his whole body to one company and become a “human-mascot-type thing.”
Some people may judge them differently now. “A lot of people think I'm a criminal just because I have tattoos,” Dotcom said. An amateur boxer, Dotcom said he was taken off the bill of a match airing on a Christian television station because of all the porn site ads on his face and body.
But most strangers appreciate the peculiarity of the tattoos. It’s one case of company branding making someone more unique. It’s way more hip, after all, to be advertising a long-dead porn website people can’t even visit than a blue-chip company like Coca-Cola that people see as a big, soulless corporation.
“It makes one hell of a story,” Greenlaw said.