The Girl With the Forensic-Analysis Tattoo

Drawing on experience: Investigator-turned-Farmingdale State College professor Michelle Miranda has written the book on the forensic value of tattoo art.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

It’s “doctor,” not “girl,” thank you, and of her four tattoos – plus a fifth on the way – none is a dragon.

But while Michelle Miranda has little in common with Stieg Larrson’s international best-selling crime novel “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” she has written the book – literally – on the overlooked value of tattoos to crime-scene investigators.

The associate Farmingdale State College professor is the author of “Forensic Analysis of Tattoos and Tattoo Inks” (CRC Press, 2015), a groundbreaking textbook covering the tools and techniques of the crime-scene tattoo review – an increasingly useful investigative procedure in a world where tattoos are vogue and murderers can be quite clever (and seriously macabre) when it comes to erasing victims’ identities.

Identification please: Do you know this elbow?

Identification please: Do you know this elbow?

“They’ll cut off hands, cut off heads,” Miranda told Innovate LI. “A lot of times, you’ll have human remains you can’t identify, bodies that have washed up or been burned or buried or otherwise not found for a length of time.”

And with “more and more people getting tattooed,” Miranda noted, and many of the designs “very individual to them,” ink can provide a crucial link to identifying otherwise unidentifiable victims and their crafty killers.

As a biology student at Manhattan College, Miranda’s course – sailing straight to medical school – seemed set. But her head was turned by a molecular biology course that exposed her to DNA analysis and the like, and when a guest lecture led to an internship in the New York City chief medical examiner’s office, Miranda found her true calling.

Her focus turned from medicine to forensic science, and she earned a master’s degree in that subject, followed by a doctorate in criminal justice (with a forensic science focus), both from John Jay College.

Jobs with the NYPD’s Forensic Investigations Unit, as a photographer for the Suffolk County Medical Examiner’s Office and as a “death investigator” for the Rockland County medical examiner made good use of her forensic flair. But her professional path had another twist in store.

In the early 2000s she caught on as an adjunct instructor at Farmingdale State, and by 2011 she was on the tenure track in the college’s Department of Security Systems & Law Enforcement Technology. She still offers private consultations as a forensics expert – mostly for attorneys, she noted – but these days, teaching is her primary focus.

“I love what I do,” Miranda told Innovate LI. “I love doing research and I love educating.”

Education is the mission with “Forensic Analysis of Tattoos and Tattoo Inks,” which she wrote primarily to “bring awareness to investigators of the importance of tattoos.”

“It’s an inventory to help detectives to be able to identify remains by the designs of the tattoos,” Miranda said. “And also by analyzing the inks themselves. A lot of time, even if you obscure the [design], there’s some ink left behind, so you can go in and analyze the ink and resolve the identity that way.”

This is useful not only because tattoos are more prevalent than ever on all societal levels – an NBC News report states that 40 percent of U.S. households now have at least one inked member, up from 21 percent in 1999 – but because traditional and newer high-tech identification methods, including fingerprints and DNA analyses, are not always available to investigators.

“Fingerprints, DNA analysis, any technology is only as good as its database,” the innovator noted. “If you recover a print but you don’t have it in a database somewhere, you might not get a hit.

“But even if you’re not able to match a DNA profile, somebody might be able to say they recognize that tattoo.”

Meanwhile, what may seem like a monkey in the wrench – the evolution of specialized tattoo inks – is actually a blessing for forensic investigators like Miranda. In a world where all tattoo artists use the same kinds of ink, it can be difficult to identify the work of a particular artist or shop, she noted, especially when a design has been obfuscated and only traces of ink remain.

“It limits how much information you can get,” Miranda said. “A lot of the blues will have the same pigments in them, for instance.

“But the more inks they make up, the more variations there are in the chemistry,” she added. “If you can detect those variations, you might have a better chance of tracing where that tattoo came from.”

Oldie but goodie: The famous "Siberian Ice Maiden," and her well-preserved tattoo.

Oldie but goodie: The famous “Siberian Ice Maiden,” and her well-preserved tattoo.

This out-of-the-inkwell thinking is what led Miranda to write her first book – “There wasn’t any real solid body of literature covering the forensic analysis of tattoos,” she noted – and will fuel an Oct. 4 lecture she gives at FSC, the first in what the college promises will be a series of public discussions featuring law enforcement, security and criminal-justice professionals.

As for Miranda’s four (soon to be five) tats, while none is a dragon, one did make its way onto the cover of her book – albeit, slightly modified – and another is based on a tattoo found on the mummified “Princess of Ukok,” aka the “Siberian Ice Maiden,” a 1993 archeological discovery in Russia’s Republic of Altai dating back to the 5th century BC.

Miranda said she ordered up a tattoo based on that remarkably well-preserved ancient design because she liked the way it looked – though the impressive shelf life of that 2,500-year-old carbon-based drawing has some unavoidable implications for a modern-day forensic expert focused on the science of skin art.

“Tattoos can survive for a good period of time,” she understated. “As a forensic investigator, that has advantages.”

There is, however, at least one disadvantage to being the preeminent expert in her particular field.

“A lot of people are … let’s say willing … to show me their tattoos,” Miranda said. “Sometimes, I just have to say, ‘No thanks.’”