Are temporary tattoos ruining tattoo culture?

Venture capital-backed temp tat companies are taking over thanks to TikTok, and independent tattoo artists aren't happy about it.

by Jack Riewe
16 August 2021, 9:41am

Imagery via Instagram

Tattoos have long been a sacred ritual of marking the body with permanent ink, uniting artist and client in a non-verbal binding contract. Those getting tattooed put their trust in the artist to feel comfortable and confident in their decision — and most importantly — not to fuck up. With the rise in popularity of temporary tattooing, that partnership is being denatured, and could make it harder for independent artists in an inaccessible industry.

Startups like Toronto-based Inkbox and New-York-based Ephemeral are leading the way in providing temporary tattoos that mimic permanent designs. A few weeks ago, Ephemeral raised $20 million in funding after finding TikTok fame, gaining over 14,000 followers in less than 5 months. Inkbox, who recently partnered with big brands like Vans Warped Tour, writer Rupi Kaur and K-Pop legends BTS to create limited edition tattoos, raised $17 million in funding to scale their hiring and research ways to make their tattoos last longer. While Inkbox’s tattoos at most only last one to two weeks, Ephemeral takes temporary tattoos one step further by presenting a more curated, ‘real’ one on one experience, inviting customers into their Brooklyn studio to receive machine designs by commissioned artists that last nine to 15 months.

Despite 20,000 tattoo shops closing during the pandemic, Tattooing remains an extremely popular business rising at the average annual rate of 3.2% from 2016 to 2021 with nearly half of Americans having at least one tattoo. Artists are reporting double the amount of bookings post-pandemic with Instagram artists consistently having “Books Closed'' in their bio. With the uptick in tattoo appointments, comes an uptick of regret. Tattoo removal makes up more than $800 million of a $3 billion industry annually, thus creating a market need for temporary tattooing. Ephemeral’s website explains how they do things differently: “For customers, this means stripping the tattoo experience of any intimidation so that everyone is free to express their individuality without fear or regret.”

If you’re like me, you might follow a bunch of independent tattoo artists on Instagram waiting for them to grace your feed with their flash sheets. There are a handful of these artists in every city, working from small studios or individually backing their business with commissions. When the news of Ephemeral’s funding round was published on Bloomberg, some artists took to their stories to express dissent. Words like “price inflation”, “corporatising”, and “antithetical to tattoo culture” appeared frequently in the artists’ Instagram stories.

Jessa Cabral is a stick-and-poke artist based in Providence, Rhode Island who has been tattooing for over three years and has already permanently tattooed thousands of people. Jessa was one of the artists who have been critical of the rise in temporary tattooing across her socials. “The industry is inaccessible and gatekeeper-ish enough and this is just another way to put people in a position to compete with something that is backed by money. The playing field isn’t level, yet again,” she says. “It’s just a tough industry to get into and with the corporatising of it, it’s just like ‘oh okay, now we have this to compete with too on top of everything else.’”

Becoming a tattoo artist is tough, especially without financial backing. Jessa said it costs about $800 to $1,000 per month to run her practice. Getting started in tattooing usually includes apprenticeship costs (which are mostly unpaid and hard to get) supply costs, licensing fees, a marketing budget, etc. If you are able to make it as a tattoo artist, profits aren’t guaranteed and vary month to month, obviously dipping during disasters like pandemics or economic recessions. Ephemeral does offer their artists a salary and job security, motivating them to join a large corporation in order to make it as a tattoo artist — possibly taking talent away from small collectives and independent and private studios.

“I think the traditional way into tattooing can be inaccessible for some people, especially for people with marginalised identities, which is where a big part of independent and private studio tattooers are coming from,” says 25-year-old San Diego-based tattoo artist Ali Mehraban,  who initially was drawn to the act of permanently marking someone and having them trust your ability to give them something they’ll love forever.

Traveling independent tattoo artist, Justice Wolf, believes the beauty of tattooing is the trust between the client and artist, and that only blooms when the tattoo is permanent. “The magic is in that space-where you are working together to make a piece of art that will last as long as that client. It doesn’t matter if it’s a joke tattoo, a memorial piece, or flash. That trust is still there,” says the 26-year-old. “Temporary tattoos completely cheapen that, you don’t have to trust your artist or create a relationship at all because it will look bad in three months and be gone in a year so who cares? Yet, you pay the same price.”

While Inkbox’s tattoos are usually under $20, Ephemeral’s tattoos, perhaps because of the more personalised experience the company offers and the patented semi-permanent ink they use, can cost anywhere from $175 to $400 — about the same as a permanent tattoo.

Justice says they believe the industry is being commercialised and watered down, emphasising the importance of researching and understanding the history of tattooing, especially in Black and indigenous cultures. “There is a history of tattooing which involves reclaiming one’s body from oppressive systems that try to punish or stigmatise your body. This especially can be found in prison tattooing, but across a lot of self-taught and non-institutionalised tattooing there are currents of this sort of self-determination through marking the body,” says Ali.

Tattooing is complex and there are so many differing opinions on what is ethical. All the artists mentioned agree on the good thing that can come out of temporary tattooing: inclusivity. Short-lived ink solves tat-related hurdles like avoiding removal, getting shamed by your family, or religious qualms. Traditional teachings in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam generally oppose permanent tattoos, attracting more orthodox customers who see temporary tattoos as a work around. This allows people who couldn’t participate in tattoo culture a way to self express and experiment with their image. Even though these tattoos are temporary, you still must be 18 or older to get inked without parental consent (Ephemeral still chooses to follow New York State’s tattooing laws on age limits).

“The information about Jewish and Muslim folks getting tattooed is awesome, but is that [temporary tattoo company’s] intended audience? If it is, then that’s rad, but if it’s to charge people $400 for something that looks shitty in six months — that’s such an arbitrary way of saying a temporary tattoo is okay, but a permanent tattoo isn’t,” says Jessa. “I want to believe they have good intentions, but again, corporatising it just changes the whole thing for me.”

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