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How do temporary and made-to-fade tattoos work?

What do tattoo brands Tattly, Ephemeral and Inkbox have in common? The commitment doesn’t last forever.

An artist applies a "made-to-fade" tattoo at Ephemeral's New York studio. (Photo: Ephemeral)


Did you hear? Kim Kardashian tattooed her face. And not just her own — her eight-year-old daughter’s, too. But before the moralizing starts, it should be noted that these tattoos were only temporary.

Temporary tattoos have been given a serious upgrade from the flaky transfers many adults will remember from their childhood. Inkbox’s “semi-permanent” tattoos last for one to two weeks, and use an ink that soaks into the skin rather than sitting on top of it, while Tattly lets people come up with their own designs (its application is more like that of a traditional temporary tattoo). Then there’s the most permanent temporary tattoo brand of them all: Ephemeral. The brand opened its first studio in Brooklyn this year and recently raised $20 million. Tattooing their customers with an ink that lasts for around one year, artists apply the designs in exactly the same way as a permanent tattoo.

How do made-to-fade tattoos work?

To apply a tattoo from Inkbox, which has raised $13.5 million in funding since it was founded in 2015, customers simply place the tattoo sticker on their arm, and allow it to soak in for one hour. The immediate result is a blue-green, slightly fuzzy tattoo — which develops into a darker, crisper drawing over 24 hours.

According to the brand, the ink soaks into the top layer of the skin, which is why it lasts longer than a regular temporary tattoo.

Ephemeral, meanwhile, spent six years researching and developing the ink it uses for its made-to-fade tattoos. The ink is inserted into the skin like a regular tattoo. But unlike permanent ink, Ephemeral’s will break down over time, until the ink eventually disappears altogether.

“The thing that makes permanent tattoos permanent is your body’s inability to break down the dye,” explains Ephemeral’s CEO, Jeff Liu. “Traditional tattoo ink clumps together. [It’s] too large to be removed, your body ‘walls off’ the area, and the ink stays for life. In contrast, Ephemeral tattoo ink particles break down over time and become small enough to be removed by the body.”

Ephemeral’s tattoos take four to six weeks to heal, similar to a regular tattoo.

How does temporary ink change the tattoo business?

When it comes to “made-to-fade” tattoos, there are mixed feelings among the tattoo artist community.

Some have voiced concerns that the likes of Inbox and Ephemeral — which come with a slew of venture capitalists in tow — will corporatize the industry, and make it more difficult for young, unknown artists to make a name for themselves.

The companies say they provide artists with a new revenue stream: Inkbox pays the artists on its platform a 5% royalty each time one of their designs is sold, while Ephemeral says its 20 tattoo artists each have a stake in the business.

Meanwhile, a temporary tattoo gives artists — and customers — room to experiment with designs. A tattoo artist that is skeptical about how good a complex, fine-line design might look in a few decades' time may feel more comfortable knowing that the temporary ink won’t be put to quite the same test.

“We’ve found that made-to-fade can push the creative limits of artists,” Liu says, adding that because Ephemeral’s tattoos require less commitment, it expands “the number of canvases with which artists can work.”

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