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ephemeral made to fade temporary tattoo ink
Courtesy of Ephemeral

Ephemeral’s made-to-fade tattoos will change the industry forever

With the look and feel of a traditional tattoo, the revolutionary ink disappears after a year – taking away the permanence (and regret) and allowing more space for experimentation

Growing up in a Persian Jewish household on Long Island, tattoos were out of the question for Josh Sakhai. As a freshman at New York University, he saw friends adorn themselves with ink – some with success, some with regret. And so Sakhai began to mull: What if tattoos didn’t have to last forever?

Six years later, he has an answer. They don’t. Along with CEO Jeff Liu and chemical engineers, Brennal Pierre and Vandan Shah, the team are set to launch Ephemeral – the first-ever made-to-fade tattoo brand. It looks like a permanent tattoo. It’s applied like a permanent tattoo (sorry, it still hurts) but then it disappears in about a year. 

Sakhai says the secret is in the ink, which his team developed alongside dermatologists to ensure safety and efficacy. Its particles are small enough to be broken down and absorbed by the body, resulting in an even fade over time. Sakhai is preparing to open Ephermeral’s first brick and mortar shop in Williamsburg, New York this spring. The setting, he says, will be inspired by spas and acupuncture clinics – an intentional departure from the traditional tattoo experience.

Artists will receive consistent pay – a rarity in an industry where artists often work under a commission model that can lead to financial insecurity and exploitation. An Ephemeral tattoo will cost the same as a permanent tattoo – anywhere between $250 and $450 for a typical design. As Josh sees it, “This is a revolutionary new technology and there’s nowhere else able to offer this experience. The fact that it’s made-to-fade is an added benefit, not a detractor from the price.” 

With permanence and any long-term regret off the table Sakhai says he “cannot wait to see what people do with it.” And while he asserts that all permanent tattoos have their purpose and story in the moment, Ephemeral tattoos are for those who “want tools, tech, fashion, and modality that embrace evolution.” Sakhai was shocked when, just a week before I spoke with him, his mother asked for an Ephemeral tattoo. The woman who was devastated by his first Ephemeral tattoo had come to see, via impermanence, as Sakhai told me, “the beauty of tattooing.” That, he says, “is one of my biggest wins.”

Here, we talk with Sakhai about Ephemeral, bad tattoos, and the zen of impermanence. 

What is Ephemeral?

Josh Sakhai: Ephemeral is a tattoo company that has created the world’s first made-to-fade tattoo ink. What that means is an actual tattoo ink applied by a real tattoo artist, just like any other tattoo, that fades away in one year.

We all grew up in households where tattooing was a no-no, to say the least. We met at NYU and one of our team members actually had a permanent tattoo that he tried to remove and he had an awful experience with laser. That sparked for us this epiphany: what if tattoos were actually made to fade? And six years later we’ve developed that technology and also created an experience that we’re really proud of. It’s inclusive – not just for clients, but for tattoo artists themselves.

How exactly does the ink work?

Josh Sakhai: The tattoos are permanent because the ink particles clump together in your skin and form clumps too big for your body to remove. Ephemeral tattoo ink works similarly, where it goes into your skin and clumps together, but over time the particles break down into smaller pieces that your body is actually able to remove. The ink formulation is designed from the ground up. That being said, when we were designing the formulation, safety was the number one, number two, and number three priority. We only used materials that are already known to be FDA-approved, already used in the medical field, and already known to be safe.

“Ephemeral tattoo ink works similarly, where it goes into your skin and clumps together, but over time the particles break down into smaller pieces that your body is actually able to remove” – Josh Sakhai, co-founder, Ephemeral 

Can you talk us through the process of getting an Ephemeral tattoo?

Josh Sakhai: So first, make sure you get a spot! Navigate over to the site and put a reservation down! After that, we’ll be reaching out to you to convert your reservation into an appointment. Before your appointment, we have a team that is designed to help you figure out and think through what kind of design you want and where on your body you want it. We notice for a lot of first-timers, even if we take off the restriction of permanence, it’s still a really big decision of what do you want to get? Even if only for a year. 

You’re set up in a private tattoo booth with a tattoo artist who will do a consultation with you, talk through your design and any concerns you have. Then comes everyone’s favourite moment: the actual tattoo. At the end, we send you on your way with an aftercare goodie bag of top-of-the-line aftercare materials. And after that, it’s not goodbye forever. We keep in really close contact with our clients to make sure they’re having great healing outcomes, to check on any questions or concerns they have over time, and of course to welcome them back to get their next Ephemeral.

Do you have any Ephemeral tattoos yourself?

Josh Sakhai: Oh yeah. Over the years I’ve gotten at least 40. There was a period of time early 2018 to mid-2019 that I lovingly look back on and call the morse code era because the tattoos we were testing were just lines and circles. People would come up to me on the street and say, ‘That’s a great morse code tattoo! What does it mean?’

What’s been your favourite?

Josh Sakhai: I’m a huge Harry Potter nerd. I love Harry Potter. And my favourite tattoo, and no bias but my favourite Ephemeral tattoo ever, was a beautiful design of Fawkes, Dumbledore’s phoenix. It was on my leg and the biggest tattoo I’ve ever gotten. It was the size of my palm. 

And it’s completely gone now?

Josh Sakhai: Sadly, yes. I’ll be honest, some of my Ephemeral tattoos? I’m glad they’re gone. And others? I’m really sad about. I miss Fawkes.

What is it like to lose a tattoo?

Josh Sakhai: For the Fawkes tattoo, it was a deeply introspective process. As I saw the tattoo fading away, I thought back to my intention when I first got it. What was I inspired by? Am I living up to that inspiration and intention?

Was it confusing to have it just not there anymore?

Josh Sakhai: I think I was well prepared. It’s a process of letting go. Moving apartments, changing relationships, changing styles – it’s a process of evolving, and that looks different to different people, but I think it brings about a lot of creativity and growth.

Do you have any permanent tattoos?

Josh Sakhai: I don’t. I haven’t found a piece yet that has made me want to take the plunge. Fawkes has come close, but nothing yet. 40-plus Ephemeral but nothing permanent.

You brought tattoo artists in to test out the ink. What was their take on it all – philosophically and technically?

Josh Sakhai: The way people automatically think about this is that tattoos are permanent and that permanence creates a lot of meaning for tattoo artists. And for a portion of the community, it is not something that they’re excited about. But we see things differently. We pay a big homage to the history and culture of tattooing. We would not be here without that. And at the same time, we believe in freedom of expression and opening it to any and all who want to engage. We’ve been lucky to work with artists who see it the same way. And we see this as something that will benefit the tattoo industry at large. Millions of people who never considered getting a permanent tattoo will consider one once they’ve broken the barrier with Ephemeral. We see that time and time again.

“We’ve catered an environment to first-timers that says no to intimidation. Do you want to change your design 15 times? We got you. You are not leaving the studio until you are thrilled with the result” – Josh Sakhai, co-founder, Ephemeral 

What about the tattoo industry are you looking to tweak?

Josh Sakhai: The tattoo industry has a lot we like and the culture and creativity is really important. At the same time, there’s a lot that has room for improvement. It can be a really intimidating experience, especially for a first-timer. We would go into tattoo shops in the earlier days, and I was this skinny kid walking in there, and artists would meet me cross-armed as if I was wasting their breath. I would walk out really humiliated. I’ve talked to friends about their first tattoo experience and they’ve talked about the shame and fear in even asking for a small design change, or asking the artist to move the stencil from one part of their body to another and to us, that’s a huge missed opportunity. One of the most vulnerable and exciting moments is lost, and there’s so much joy missed in that. We’ve catered an environment to first-timers that says no to intimidation. We welcome all forms of creativity, all skin types, body types, skin tones. And you want to change your design 15 times? We got you. You are not leaving the studio until you are thrilled with the result.