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Disappearing Tattoos Are Gaining Traction

The made-to-fade ink business Ephemeral is meeting the needs of young tattoo recipients, many of whom are seeking impermanence.

Think tattoos are permanent? Think again. 

Millennials and Gen Zers with spare cash and commitment aversions are flocking to Ephemeral, the Williamsburg-based tattoo studio that developed a special “made-to-fade” ink that disappears within nine to 15 months. The waitlist is eight months long, and the business has raised $20 million to open more locations.

Ephemeral’s popularity ties into expanding consumer desire for impermanence, according to Soon Futures Studies global futures director Sarah Owen. She noted that with trends like Uber replacing the need to purchase a car, younger generations — especially Gen Z — are looking for more “fractional purchases.” 

“They are a discerning generation that has grown up in a lot of insecurity politically, socially, environmentally and so investing in something long term, like a permanent tattoo, is a bit too much of a stretch or commitment for them,” Owen said. 

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Temporary tattoos, which generally last a few days to weeks, are also trending, according to Spate, which said the category has 265,000 average monthly searches, and brands are popping up in retailers like Ulta and Urban Outfitters. Celebrities like Cara Delevingne and Billy Porter have been known to sport faux tats.

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While Owen believes semi-permanent tattoos will be especially popular amongst Gen Zers and Millennials, she has noticed generational pride trending on TikTok, with people posting more and more about their families. This could result in Gen X and Boomers who, influenced by their kids, would want to test out temporary tattoos, too, Owen explained. 

The tattoo market has declined during the COVID-19 pandemic, but more than 46 percent of Americans have at least one tattoo. The industry is estimated to be worth about $1.4 billion, according to IbisWorld. 

Interest in tattoo removal, however, is on its way up — according to Spate, there are 658,000 tattoo removal searches on average monthly, an increase of 18.9 percent since last year. Pete Davidson of “Saturday Night Live” has been candid about his tattoo removal journey, joking about it in the latest SmartWater commercial. For Ephemeral cofounder and former chief executive officer David Seung Shin, his own painful and expensive tattoo removal experience inspired the idea for the company. 

Ephemeral CEO Jeffrey Liu, formerly of Casper and Tesla, said he finds tattoos aspirational, but the company’s cofounders Dr. Vandan Shah, Dr. Brennal Pierre and Joshua Sakhai started the company because they wished tattoos were not permanent, especially because they came from households where getting inked was considered taboo. In May 2015, the team won $75,000 in an NYU entrepreneurship competition and began the product development process.

In collaboration with dermatologists, Shah and Pierre developed more than 50 different formulations for the ink. They refer to the testing phase as the “morse code era,” because of the amount of dots and lines tattooed on themselves during the process.

The final product is a patented ink made with FDA-approved materials that are biodegradable and able to break down into small particles the body can naturally remove. It is the first and only made-to-fade tattoo ink, according to the brand. 

Ephemeral's Patented Made-to-Fade Tattoo Ink
Ephemeral has patented its made-to-fade tattoo ink, and the Williamsburg studio has amassed an eight-month waitlist. Courtesy of Ephemeral Tattoo

At the tattoo shop, the Ephemeral inking process is the same as traditional tattooing, however, the business recommends customers opt for line work over shading to protect tattoo integrity during the fading process. Liu, who joined the team in September 2020, said Ephemeral plans to launch other ink colors. 

In July after blowing up on TikTok, Ephemeral raised $20 million from several investors, including Anthos Capital, Primary Venture Partners and Canaan Partners, with plans to expand operations. The business intends to open in between 10 and 20 new markets, with plans to open in Los Angeles this fall. 

“One of the things about Ephemeral that is so compelling is that what we’re doing is something that has a universal reach.…We do think that with our technology and our focus on experience, we have dramatically expanded the marketplace,” Liu said.

The Ephemeral customer is often there to test out a tattoo they’ve always wanted ahead of a more permanent endeavor, or to get something unusual. Once, the shop had two friends come in to have Karl Marx tattooed on their butts, Liu said.

Ephemeral Williamsburg Tattoo Studio
Ephemeral Williamsburg Tattoo Studio Sarah Rocco

Ephemeral’s Williamsburg studio, which features a Millennial-friendly minimalist aesthetic complete with neutral tones and plants, opened during the pandemic. Customers are escorted into private spaces for the tattoo process. Tattoos cost between $195 and $450, and artists are paid an annual salary with benefits, rather than being paid per piece. 

Liu said that during the pandemic, consumers were looking to experiment with their individuality, which created a pent-up demand for tattoos and led to Ephemeral’s eight-month waitlist. 

New U.S. locations are on the way, but the Ephemeral team thinks impermanent tattoos have a global appeal.

Liu said his long-term goal is to create a “world where everyone is rocking a tattoo.”

“We hope to be pioneers of that,” Liu said. “We will continue to do our part in innovating our product, delivering awesome experiences and building our business with conviction. We think that will create that world.”

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