Tattoos are more popular than ever. Half of all American adults have one, in a trend fueled by ink-loving millennials. But that doesn’t mean getting a tattoo isn’t still a question of commitment. Everyone getting a tattoo must ask themselves: Do I really want this on my body for the rest of my life?
Or they did. Now, a company called Ephemeral is offering a new type of tattoo, which promises to fade away in 9-15 months. That might sound like blasphemy, or that might sound like genius. In any case, the company has just opened its first location in Brooklyn and is taking reservations—which are already booked three months out.
“We saw there was a lot of innovation for tattoo removal,” says cofounder Joshua Sakhai. “We asked, what if we flip this, and start with making tattoos designed to let people express themselves without the fear of regret?”
To be clear, getting an Ephemeral tattoo is still every bit as painful as getting a traditional one. It’s not a stick-on, temporary tattoo that just needs a wet washcloth. Ephemeral uses the exact same needle-based tattoo machines to apply the tattoo to a person’s skin, in the exact same way, as the permanent tattoos we know. The only difference is that the ink is formulated to break down in your skin over time.
The ink itself was formulated and tested over the course of six years of development, led by NYU professor of chemical engineering and Ephemeral cofounder Brennal Pierre. While the company is tight-lipped about exactly what’s inside, the ink is a patented formulation developed entirely from FDA-approved ingredients and validated with a commissioned medical study. As Sakhai explains, with any tattoo, your body’s immune system can and will break down stray ink particles. But the large pools of ink under your skin clump together, resisting removal. With Ephemeral ink, these same pools form, but they disaggregate over time, so the ink particles break down in a faster, more predictable fashion.
Is there any catch? Definitely there are a few. First off, Ephemeral tattoos do cause trauma to your skin, just like real tattoos. So once they fade, it’s possible that your skin’s pigment will look lighter or darker where the tattoo was. Second, for now, Ephemeral tattoos are only available in black (though the company is working on colors). Finally, Ephemeral tattoos are relatively expensive—roughly three times the market rate for conventional tattoos. Tiny, jewelry-size tattoos start at $175. Statement pieces, such as a moderately sized tattoo on your bicep, can cost up to $450. As for an entire sleeve or that giant flaming eagle you want on your back? Ephemeral isn’t doing pieces of that magnitude yet.
What’s holding the company back? Sakhai has used his own skin to test the product for years. For a while, he had dots and dashes sampling various inks on his arm—a look that friends told him looked like Morse code. “If you’re a chef, you want to serve the soup to your guests after you’ve tried it 1,000 times,” says Sakhai. And despite having gotten over 100 Ephemeral tattoos himself over the years, he hasn’t opted to get something as large as a sleeve yet. Until he can guarantee a level of satisfaction with the product on a large scale, he doesn’t want customers experimenting with their own bodies.
Indeed, Ephemeral is extremely cognizant about customer satisfaction as it builds its reputation and expands its footprint. It hired a team of five seasoned and respected tattoo artists who would be capable of giving great tattoos with proper technique to mitigate scarring. The Brooklyn studio is set up with a lush sitting room full of plants, so it looks more like a spa or hair salon than a late-night tattoo parlor. Customers are tattooed in private spaces, rather than openly in the studio. And when you book the appointment online, you can share art styles you like to narrow down the “What should I get??” panic that can happen the first time you get into the chair.
Rather than wholesaling their ink to the 20,000+ tattoo shops across the U.S., Ephemeral plans to launch more retail locations around the world to control this experience.
Some of this plan is clearly born from Sakhai’s failed, first attempt to get a tattoo. To his immigrant parents—who are Persian and Jewish— tattoos were off-limits. So in college, as an act of rebellion, he went to a tattoo parlor to get inked. But when he couldn’t make up his mind, he was shamed out of the tattoo studio and left feeling like a poseur. Sakhai never got a traditional tattoo, but he’s spent all of his professional energy since leaving school to bring Ephemeral about.
Some of this plan is also born from the experience of CEO Jeffrey Liu, who spent six years at Tesla, watching how successful Elon Musk was at selling the world on burgeoning electric cars by maintaining control of every aspect of the experience.
Even so, I can’t help but ask Ephemeral if its business plan makes sense. Does a year-long tattoo solve the issues of regret and indecision, or does it negate the point of getting a tattoo altogether? In the best-case scenario, why go through so much pain only to lose a beloved keepsake?
The team has several convincing answers. For one, they believe that there are 60 million Americans who want tattoos but can’t commit. Secondly, they point out that tattoos are addictive. We all have at least one, heavily tattooed friend who’s in and out of parlors all the time. But Ephemeral points to market research that 80% of people who get a tattoo get more than one. Almost all have more than four. So if you get someone to get one tattoo, chances are they’ll be hooked.
However, Ephemeral is thinking a bit bigger than that; they hope to alter the way you think about tattoos altogether. “The behavior we’re taking a bet on is people are going to use this in a way that celebrates change. I think of apparel or hair coloring,” says Sakhai. “We’re taking a bet that this is the next frontier of expression.”
In other words, Ephemeral won’t give you a self-destructing tattoo to avoid regret; it will give you a seasonal tattoo to embrace the latest trends and even your latest self (for instance, two guys who recently got matching Karl Marx tattoos on their butt cheeks at Ephemeral). However, the concept gets even more powerful when the team shares some of its bigger long-term plans: cosmetic tattoos (like eyeliner) that you don’t have to live with once the look goes out of style. Ephemeral also sees an opportunity with cancer patients who must get a series of small tattoos for lining up radiology equipment. Rather than being stuck with a few marks on their body for the rest of their lives, a patient could choose an Ephemeral tattoo and forget that painful process.
“As non-tattooers, approaching this with a fresh lens, we took a liberty to design this experience from the ground up,” says Sakhai. Now only time will tell if Ephemeral is a fleeting fad or a poised for a lasting, global footprint.