Do you know where your DNA is?

You’d never leave your social security number lying around in public. Or hand out your birth certificate. But who thinks twice about chewing gum or strands of hair? In her “Stranger Visions” project, currently on display in Washington, DC, artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg created 3D portraits of people based on DNA they’d left behind.

DNA-based portraits. All images courtesy of Heather Dewey-Hagborg.

DNA-based portraits. All images courtesy of Heather Dewey-Hagborg.

“We are constantly leaving traces, clues as to who we are,” she states in a release on her website. “The possibility of genetic surveillance is the possibility of analyzing these artifacts to extract incredibly personal, intimate information — things you may not even know about yourself.”

The portraits are part of the “Cyber in Securities” exhibition, which runs from August 30 through September 27 at Pepco Edison Place Gallery, as part of the Washington Project for the Arts.

The idea for the project came simply from noticing a strand of hair stuck in a framed print on a wall. Dewey-Hagborg began wondering about the owner of the hair and what she could learn about him or her. “Walking home later that day, I became cognizant of all the genetic material surrounding me, and the idea for ‘Stranger Visions’ materialized,” she said.


Portrait from “sample 2.”


Portrait from “sample 7.”

Dewey-Hagborg began collecting samples — such as hair, nails, cigarette butts, and gum — from areas around her in New York City. Working with two biology labs, she was then able to extract DNA from the samples and amplify certain sections using polymerase chain reaction, or PCR. By pulling apart the strands of DNA and then using the originals as templates, the technique allows researchers to create potentially millions of copies — the large volumes needed for analysis.

For the project, she targeted certain single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs, which are genetic variations that scientists believe could serve as personal biological markers for disease and other factors. In Dewey-Hagborg’s case, using a bioinformatics program, she analyzed the sequenced DNA for things such as gender, ancestry, eye color, hair color, freckles, and certain facial features.

DNA extraction

DNA extraction.

Sample cigarette

Sampled cigarette from Brooklyn, NY.

To obtain the final portrait, another computer program she created uses the data to generate a virtual 3D model. A physical model can then be created with a 3D printer. The result is not an exact replica of the person from whom the DNA came — more of a general “family resemblance,” according to Dewey-Hagborg.

The portraits are intended as art, she noted, not some type of product or company development.

“This work is a provocation, designed to spur a cultural dialogue about genetic surveillance and forensic DNA phenotyping,” she continued. “What does it mean for an artist, an amateur, to do this? What are the implications for privacy issues, as well as law enforcement? I think these are the major questions.”

For more information on “Stranger Visions” and other works, visit deweyhagborg.com. There is also a wonderful short video on the project called “DNA Portrait.”


Nicole is an editor and writer living in San Francisco.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *