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How the cofounders of Ephemeral reinvented tattoos to make them last just a year

Cofounders Brennal Pierre and Vandan Shah came up with a new kind of biodegradable tattoo ink.

How the cofounders of Ephemeral reinvented tattoos to make them last just a year
[Illustration: Julian Ardilla]
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Tattoos are a lifetime commitment.

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Brennal Pierre

Or they used to be. New York–based startup Ephemeral opened a shop last March offering tattoos that promise to fade away after one year. The tattoo itself is applied by traditional, mechanical needles. What’s different is the ink. Typical tattoo inks clump up in the skin’s dermis, where the pigments resist anti- body proteins that try to break them down. Ephemeral cofounders Brennal Pierre and Vandan Shah developed an ink that’s laced with the same FDA-approved plastics used in pills and medical implants, so it still clumps in the skin but biodegrades as the immune system breaks it down. Once the ink has been broken down, it can pass through the skin, gradually lifting over a period of 9 to 15 months.

Pierre and Shah, who got their PhDs in the same chemical engineering lab at New York University, were inspired to create Ephemeral after their friend (and co-founder) David Seung Shin, now chief of staff at GetLabs, went through the painful and expensive process of having a tattoo laser-removed. The duo began studying how tattoos functioned, and how the ink might be engineered to self-destruct. After developing their first formula, in 2016, the team tested it on pig skin with great success. But when Shah enthusiastically turned the tattoo gun on himself, the results weren’t as good. “It didn’t transfer into my skin at all,” Shah says with a laugh.

Vandan Shah

After five years of development and safety testing—”We’re still the guinea pigs,” Shah jokes—the team found a formula that works (and applied for two pat- ents) and opened a shop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It’s currently booked eight months out, and business is growing 100% month over month. The company will open a second studio, in Los Angeles, this fall.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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