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Ephemeral tattoo studio
Courtesy of the author

No regrets? I tried the first ever ‘made to fade’ tattoo


TextOlivia King

Traditionalists might be put off by Ephemeral initially, but I left the innovative tattoo parlour wanting a lifetime subscription

I’m sitting on a millennial-pink bubbly sofa in an airy Williamsburg warehouse-turned-retail space when a petite woman with an iPad brings me a glass of water. She introduces herself as Marissa, the artist I’ll be working with today. “Do you have tattoos?” she asks. I tell her yes. “So you know how this goes.” I nod. I have a few crude, hand-poked doodles in hidden places, where Marissa has an elaborate sleeve and multiple face tattoos. On her iPad, she shows me the image of a Joan Miró monster I’d sent her a few days before. We quickly go over size and placement. I tell her I trust her. I know the tattoo will fade in about a year, so I’m not compelled to nitpick – today I’m getting a made-to-fade Ephemeral tattoo.  

Marissa takes me to a massage table that’s wrapped in cling form and hospital paper, cordoned off by pink translucent curtains. She preps my skin with a disposable razor and alcohol and asks me to get comfortable. She’s been a tattoo artist for 11 years, she tells me, she got her first tattoo when she was just 14-years-old. “My parents and grandparents have tattoos,” she says. “It’s a whole thing in our family.” I wonder what some of her former colleagues think about a tattoo that’s made-to-fade. “Oh, they think it’s the stupidest thing ever,” Marissa says. “But they just don’t see the potential of it yet.”  

A few weeks earlier, I’d spoken to Josh Sakhai, co-founder of Ephemeral, the made-to-fade tattoo ink brand that just opened the Williamsburg shop in March. The idea came about after a regrettable infinity sign tattoo on co-founder Jeff Liu and his subsequent attempts to remove it. The two got together with chemical engineers Brennal Pierre and Vandan Shah to address what they believed was a giant market gap. They knew plenty of people who liked the idea of a tattoo, but were repelled by its permanence – whether because of religious or cultural stigmas, fear of commitment, or the intimidating experience. After six years of research and development, they created an ink that is applied like any other tattoo ink, by an artist with a machine, that naturally fades in nine to 15 months.

“My first question was is that safe?” Marissa tells me. It’s something I hadn’t really considered. Much like the other needle going into my arm this spring (Pfizer), I figured it was all above-board, and the science over my head. But a tattoo and a vaccine are not that dissimilar, I learned. They both rely on the same immune response to make them effective. With permanent tattoos, large immune cells called macrophages arrive at the site of what they see as an attack – needles jabbing ink pigments through multiple layers of skin. The macrophages do their best to eat the ink particles and disperse them back through the lymphatic system. But the particles of tattoo ink are too large for the cells to disband. As a result, the ink becomes a permanent dweller of our dermal cells. 

Ephemeral ink, however, has small enough particles that the macrophages can do their job and break up the tattoo over the course of a year or so, depending on body type and the placement and size of the tattoo. All materials are FDA approved and dermatologist consulted and Ephemeral has very strict sanitary practices in place. (This is true for virtually all tattoo shops. After a Hepatitis B outbreak in 1961, tattoos were banned outright in New York, the State Court called them a “barbaric survival,” which forced the art form underground. By the time tattoos became legal again in New York, in 1997, stringent sterility was par for the course.)

My Ephemeral tattoo takes about an hour to draw into me. When it’s over, everyone on staff comes in to chat and see Marissa’s work. I’m told the healing process is a bit different from a traditional tattoo. I’ll have to wear a hydrocolloid bandage for 72 hours (basically a giant blister bandaid, which I hear is also good for pimples). There may be redness, which is totally expected and normal despite it being associated with infection in permanent tattoos. They give me soap, green goo, and hydrocortisone to apply if there’s any itchiness.

The healing is pretty uneventful for me. Not a lot of redness, but the tattoo stays raised for weeks. It looks like a normal tattoo; the colour is rich and it won’t start fading for several months, I’m told. Once healed, I feel no anxiety about the possibility of regretting this tattoo, or imagining how time could distort it into looking like a melanoma. I really like my tattoo, though, and I’m not sure I want it to disappear. 

With my “real” tattoos, I wasn’t thinking much about permanence. It certainly wasn’t a draw, nor was it a deterrent. I can’t comprehend my body’s continuance, and like many young people I can’t imagine getting old. My experience with Marissa was so tactile and physically eliciting, it did not feel blunted by the absence of the abstract and perhaps false concept of bodily permanence; I felt I was getting a real tattoo and life is mutable anyway. This was not a Shakespeare sonnet that so long it lived gave life to thee. It’s more like a favourite, identity-defining, t-shirt that I know I will lose in about a year. I also know I’ll get another. I want a lifelong subscription to Ephemeral.

While traditionalists may be put off by the made-to-fade concept, and protective of the art form and its rich history, I think Marissa is right; maybe they don’t see the possibilities. Whatever our reasons for inking ourselves, whether it’s to decorate our bodies or to mark a significant life event, we are part of a long, thousands-year-old human tradition--one that Ephemeral preserves in its own impermanent way.  

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