Question #13: Ephemeral Tattoos
Here today, gone tomorrow
What are your thoughts on ephemeral tattoos? I feel like they’re catering to the same people who ostracize others for getting tattoos and something about that just doesn’t sit right with me.
Celebrates who you are today with a tattoo that doesn't last forever.” -Ephemeral
[Image: a fading timeline from Ephemeral’s website showing four images of a tattoo becoming progressively lighter over fifteen months.]
ISO: My Body is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
In a late-night jetlagged internet research hole a couple of weeks ago, I came across a number of archival news articles and op-eds about tattooing. It’s a fun exercise to read a headline and article without looking at the date of publication, then to go back and measure the attitudes and opinions against the date they were written. It’s striking how consistent both social taboos around tattoos and the efforts to counter those judgments are. I loved the fact that in a 1985 article, Peter Stephens of the National Tattoo Association argued for the value of tattoos and tattooed people with the notion that late President Kennedy had an anchor tattoo of his own (for the record, I looked for any other mention of John F. Kennedy being tattooed and couldn’t find any).
Stephens went on to say something that stood out to me: “This is warm art. Once the person dies, that's the end of it.” Warm art. What a nice way to succinctly name what makes tattooing tattooing— the medium of the body and its lifespan.
For the uninitiated (which includes myself), Ephemeral tattoos are applied with a branded and patented ink designed to fade in 9-15 months, according to their website. On their site, you can see examples of the fading process, which to my eye closely resembles the way a tattoo lightens during the laser removal process, only without the blistering and peeling that accompanies laser sessions. The allure as they describe it is to enjoy the tattoo experience and “regret nothing.”
What makes this possible? According to Ephemeral:
“Ephemeral’s ink is made from medical-grade polymers and dyes. Simply put, polymers are chains of smaller molecules. The polymers in Ephemeral ink are biodegradable and bioabsorbable, so after they enter the body, they will gradually break apart until the particles are small enough for the body to remove. This process of breaking apart and removal is what causes the fade.” -ephemeral.tattoo
I looked up their patent, and the description given there is more specific:
Abstract: The disclosure relates to a composition that is designed to be administered to a subject intradermally for treating pigmentless skin or creating a temporary tattoo. The composition comprises particles having a polymeric shell and a core that includes a coloring agent. The particles are in a carrier solution at a concentration that is cosmetically effective to delay the bioabsorbance and/or biodegradation of coloring agent in a subject's skin. Bioabsorbance and/or biodegradation of the particles fades the tattoo until it is no longer visible.
Scientific terminology isn’t my strong suit, but what I take this to mean is that the pigment particles are encased in a biodegradable coating, and that once the coating has degraded, the particles are small enough (smaller than in traditional tattoo ink) that they can be removed via the body’s natural immune response. Ephemeral tattoos are currently only available in black ink, though according to their FAQ they are in the process of testing color inks to ensure their fading capability. To get one, you book time at one of their five studio locations and have the tattoo applied by one of their artists. Interestingly, it looks as if most of their artists also do traditional permanent tattoos at other shops. I’d be curious to know if artists work at both types of studios, and what differences they see in clientele and overall worker experience.
As a total outsider to this culture of temporary tattoos, it’s difficult to get a sense of how popular or in-demand they are. Their official Instagram page boasts a following of 119,000 and their site claims that over 10,000 Ephemeral tattoos have been applied to date. Their pricing structure includes a 20% tip for studio artists, who are salaried. Based on the comparison chart below, it seems as if a lower price commitment is also a selling point—which makes sense, given that with traditional tattoos, you’re investing in something that will last a lifetime. (It’s worth noting that a career as an Ephemeral artist at their studios pays you a $55k salary with benefits, PTO and equity in the company.)
One thing that stands out to me is the inclusive branding of their site. Identifying the owners and founders as immigrants and emphasizing that “everyone is welcome,” the web copy is imbued with the language of queerness and sexual and gender fluidity, reading not unlike a June #Pride #ad.
“As the world moves away from fixed identities and binaried boundaries—our made-to-fade tattoos offer a fun and fluid approach to body modification. Now, more than ever, self-expression matters and the world needs more means to take control of their own identities. We offer a promise that you can express who you are and own who you are not.” -ephemeral.tattoo
What I find interesting about this angle is that in some ways, it contradicts what we might expect from a product like this. Rather than entirely shame people for permanently altering their body or making regrettable decisions (though they do significantly use the concept of regret in their marketing), they emphasize the fluidity of the process instead of a linear “leave it in the past” or “grow out of it” perspective. It sounds like that’s what potentially rubs you, dear querent, the wrong way about the concept as a whole—the sense that it positions itself as a more reasonable, respectable alternative to a permanent commitment.
[Image: Headline for an op-ed reading “Seeing tattoos makes me feel physically sick: ubiquity of body art is born out of an existential crisis of humanity in the post-religious world”]
The permanence of tattooing has been the subject of quite a bit of angst. The op-eds below are testament to the fact that this angst will always find an audience, most notoriously Melanie Phillips’ insistence that “seeing tattoos makes [her] physically sick” (bye Melanie). An unbearable piece by Dan Brooks quotes Sartre on vertigo and grapples with the distance between his middle-aged and teenaged selves: “The problem with thinking of our tattoos as a declaration of the permanence of our values is that they haven’t been permanent for very long…The indignity has not set in, but it will.”
[Headlines reading “Mark my words. Maybe,” “The existential anguish of the tattoo,” and “Tattooed people are more anti-social”]
It's foolish to think that people get tattooed without considering their future selves. I’d argue that people get tattooed both despite their future selves, committing to their current choices regardless of how they might feel about them later in life, and at the same time with trust in themselves as they age. We go into being tattooed with the knowledge that nothing is fixed; not ideology, not aesthetic preferences, and certainly not sense of self. We believe in ourselves to meet those changes accordingly and with grace, to be flexible and to have a good sense of humor.
A large part of what makes tattooing so significant is its commitment. We agree to something as permanent as we are while at the same time holding the fragility of life, of relationships, of allegiances to places or bands or styles. I’ll be honest: I don’t hate the Ephemeral tattoo concept. I would suspect that a number of Ephemeral tattoo recipients might decide they want a more permanent commitment once their piece starts to fade. Some of them might already have permanent tattoos and want to experience something different. The science, at the very least, is fascinating. If people want to flirt with semi-permanence, there’s something interesting there to me about subverting the ways commitment functions in service of the varied concepts of allegiance within tattooing, defining people by turns as insiders, outlaws, dedicated, or tourists. Ultimately, I do believe that the commitment is what makes tattooing special, and that the way a tattoo becomes a part of you and sees you through seasons of your life is unparalleled in other forms of art and body modification. I don’t see a temporary alternative diminishing that.
~~~~ Have you gotten an Ephemeral tattoo? Have you done an Ephemeral tattoo? Tell me all about it! I want to know everything. ~~~~
[Note: After a tattooer friend mentioned Ephemeral tried to recruit them as an artist, I looked back in my inbox and realized they offered to have me try their ink back in July of 2020. I had more pressing issues on my mind at that moment and declined.]
You can buy my book, Could This Be Magic? Tattooing as Liberation Work via Afterlife Press.
Yves is an immunocompromised abolitionist organizer in need of help with moving costs.
CashApp $heymoon, Venmo @yvesnguyen, Paypal firstname.lastname@example.org
Egypt Dior is in need of housing support.