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"Microblading PhiBrows" Tam Nguyen, Youtube

People are now tattooing their undereye bags away

TextAnya Angert

But it might not be the best idea. We speak to cosmetic tattooist Holly Starcevich to find out more about the ever evolving permanent make-up industry

Remembering permanent make-up of past times is like remembering a bad dream - conjured images of dodgy tattooed brows and fuzzy lines around the eyes fading into an unflattering blue-green tint. However, the industry is currently undergoing a revival. Far from what it was before, permanent make-up has grown and evolved exponentially over the past two decades, with its popularity rising particularly in the last few years. A quick scroll on Insta and you’ll find more than one million images under #permanentmakeup and over two million images under #microblading. And with everything from brows and eyeliner to lips and even undereye dark circles (although we don’t advise this) available for tattooing, the possibilities are endless.

“The convenience achieved from cosmetic tattooing is unmatched,” says Dallas-based permanent make-up artist Holly Starcevich. “These services are saving women all over the world the time and effort it would normally take to do a high-quality job on their everyday make-up.”

It’s not just time-saving, however, that permanent make-up can help with, it can also offer a sense of self back to those who are suffering from conditions that make it difficult to apply one’s own make-up, such as Parkinson’s disease or arthritis, meaning that make-up routines of these individuals don’t have to be inhibited. We spoke to Holly to find out more.

Can you tell us a bit about cosmetic tattooing?
Holly Starcevich: Tattooing itself is an ancient practice, but it wasn't until the 1900s that it became popular for cosmetic purposes. “Complexion treatments” were marketed to women as a way to achieve a 24/7 rosy glow. This treatment was performed without the client's knowledge that it was in fact, a form of tattooing. In the past, cosmetic tattooing had been regarded as something tasteless and bizarre. Over the last ten years or so, the art form has evolved into what it is today: a highly specialised, extremely natural, luxury cosmetic service with an unrivalled convenience factor.

Where did you learn your technique?
Holly Starcevich: From the time I was young, I knew I wanted to be an artist. As I got older, the reality of being a professional artist became more and more unappealing. Low pay and extreme competition convinced me to pursue other avenues. Then five years ago, I discovered that there was a school in my area offering basic permanent make-up courses. Dallas supports a thriving and innovative beauty industry. But technique isn't something that is developed by taking a class. It comes from years of practice, trial and error, experimentation and failure. Skin is an unpredictable canvas and it's a very difficult thing to learn. I think I speak for most people when I say that technique is something that is unique to the artist – its refinement comes from individual experience.

How does it actually work?
Holly Starcevich: Cosmetic tattooing involves the use of sophisticated techniques and tools to place pigment into the dermis layer of the skin to create a variety of cosmetic effects. Realistic hair strokes, soft pixelated brow shading, smokey eyeliner and soft, naturally defined lips. It's the consumer’s job to research and find an artist whose style is compatible with their expectations. During an appointment an artist will numb the client for comfort, a custom design and colour will be created for client approval, and then the procedure commences. The client will return four-eight weeks later for a touch up to fine tune the design and colour.

Can you tell us a bit more about permanent under-eye concealer?
Holly Starcevich: Permanent concealer is a condemned procedure in the cosmetic tattoo community. The initial results look great, but the reality is that the treatment does not age well, and the pigment is almost impossible to remove. Skin tone pigments have a high concentration of white, which is a titanium molecule. Titanium molecules are huge, and heavy. Underneath the skin, they sink, swell and discolour with repeated sun exposure. It ends up looking like yellow cottage cheese under the skin.

Cosmetic tattooing seems to combine tattooing and make-up, but would you say it is more of a cosmetic procedure rather than just getting a tattoo?
Holly Starcevich:  In the USA, in the state of Texas, cosmetic tattooing is classified as a tattoo, and I am legally required to operate under a tattoo license. But it's more than either of those things. This industry branches so many different communities ranging from scientific, artistic, cosmetic, and medical. The testing behind the pigments, products and tools is rigorous. The cosmetic benefit and aesthetic is unparalleled, and its ability to effectively treat medical symptoms for a fraction of the cost of medical treatments is exceptional.

Do you see it as problem-solving ie. covering dark circles, restoring lip colour, fixing thin eyebrows. Or is it a way of enhancing beauty?
Holly Starcevich: Absolutely both. It's an artist's job to treat the client’s concerns as much as possible while also enhancing their own natural beauty. We can enhance and reshape brows, or create and restore hair loss and lip colour, all with a highly aesthetic appeal.

How much creative agency are you allowed or do you just do what the client asks?
Holly Starcevich: All forms of cosmetic tattooing are guided by a set of rules to keep the look safe, beautiful and convenient for the consumer long term. While some of these rules can be slightly bent, they are not meant to be completely broken. It's important for an artist to take the client’s personal preference into consideration, while still working conservatively enough to prevent undesirable outcomes.

What do you think cosmetic tattooing says about our relationship with beauty?
Holly Starcevich: I think it says that make-up application is an inconvenient, but necessary part of feeling our best. Cosmetic tattooing is meant to help women feel their best 24/7 without the hassle. Cosmetic tattooing is meant to get you out the door on a normal work day knowing that your brows, lips, or liner is already soft and perfectly done. It's not meant to create the drama of a New Year’s eve look, but can alternatively act as a base for a more done up appearance. Darkening a look when you already have a perfect template to work with adds to the convenience factor of the treatment.

Can you remember the first time you did it? What was that like?
Holly Starcevich: Terrifying. My first procedure ever was an eyeliner in my basics class, and the thought of making my teacher unhappy or even making a mistake was nerve wracking. You eventually get over it after a few hundred procedures or so.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learnt from doing this?
Holly Starcevich: The most surprising thing I've learned, is that committing to this business involves a never ending commitment to the education behind it. This industry is innovative, and it’s constantly evolving at an incredibly fast pace. Techniques are becoming increasingly advanced and specialised. You have to consistently improve and challenge yourself in order to keep up.

What are the biggest misconceptions about cosmetic tattooing?
Holly Starcevich: Not everyone can do this. Cosmetic tattooing is incredibly dependent on artistic skill and an incredible commitment to the practice behind it. If artistry doesn't already come naturally, or if someone is unwilling to commit to the practice, they will struggle. The fact is that this industry has no room for error when working on someone's face. It's important to do your research and find an artist that has proven consistent, beautiful, healed results.

You can’t get this done at any random salon. While laws vary, the vast majority of places require that the procedure be performed in its own space, away from other activity, and under a professionally licensed and insured artist. Licensing ensures that the artist receives, and passes regular health inspections.

Another misconception is that it’s just for ladies. Brows look great on guys too. Also that this is purely for vanity. I have gotten lots of people with albinism, alopecia, trichotillomania, or people that are unable to apply their make-up due to poor eyesight or hand control. One of the sadly more common things I see is people coming in to get their eyebrows done before they begin chemotherapy. Knowing it will cause their hair to fall out, they will get a pre-emptive procedure that will allow them to keep their own natural shape and their dignity during their extremely painful and difficult battle with cancer.

What are the most challenging parts of your profession?
Holly Starcevich: Managing client expectations can be difficult. Everyone wants something different, and cosmetic tattooing goes on much darker and bolder in order to achieve even the most natural results. A big part of every procedure is preparing the client for a week of bold lips or brows before they heal up soft and natural. The single most frustrating part about what I do is correction work. Due to the growing popularity of these types of services, I'm finding myself correcting work that simply was not done well. Bad placement, asymmetry and poor technique limit how much work can be improved, and I recommend removal often.

What are the most rewarding parts?
Holly Starcevich: The greatest reward is simply making people happy, and it comes in many forms. My clients tell me all the time how much they enjoy the time they save from their effortless looks that won't smudge or sweat away. Sometimes I get the privilege to give someone back their receded hairline after years of ineffective and expensive medical treatments. I have had the pleasure of giving ladies an eyeliner after they have lost the vision and motor skills needed to apply it. The rewards feel endless.

Is your attention staying focused on cosmetic tattooing or are you looking towards other beauty experiments?
Holly Starcevich:  I believe that a jack of all trades is a master of none. Cosmetic tattooing is still an unexplored frontier, and I plan on refining my technique and finding new ways to improve. I am also constantly learning new techniques and methods so that I can push the boundaries and find what works. It is a constant cycle of ideation, experimentation, and analysing of results to find ways to advance the practice. Cosmetic tattooing is the future.

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