A few months ago, I walked into a tattoo shop near my apartment, forked over $100, slipped a token into a gumball machine, and opened a plastic pod to find the image I would soon have on my upper arm for the rest of my life. The shop calls this game Get What You Get: You pay the house minimum and get a surprise design via the retro machine, then an artist turns it into a small, full-color tattoo. I got a human eye with an arched brow and a single tear. I asked for a green iris, but otherwise the details of the final product were left up to the artist.
The eye was my fifth tattoo. While my taste for ink might be a little chaotic, it’s hardly rare among people my age. Millennials are America’s most tattooed generation: In 2015, a Harris poll found that nearly half of adults ages 18 to 35 had at least one. On image-heavy social platforms such as Instagram and Pinterest, young, fashionable women in tank tops delicately photograph their tattoos on their bronzed shoulders. Men’s tattoo sleeves peek out of their shirts in photos of them holding steaming cups of coffee. The Instagram feeds of tattoo artists, who have become stars on the platform, are full of bold close-ups of freshly inked flesh in their signature style.
For people who want to join this online tattoo party but aren’t as ready as I have been to lend a body part to a stranger with a needle, a sneaky alternative has gained momentum online: semipermanent tattoos. These temporary options use hennalike inks to stain the top layer of skin for about a week, which is just long enough to take a few good photos and maybe scare your parents. These tattoos are a reversible approach to an otherwise permanent decision, which makes them an easy fit for the ways young people perform, contort, and reimagine their appearance online.
In the past 30 years, tattoos have shown remarkable class mobility. What was once the province of roughnecks, ex-cons, and manual laborers is now de rigueur among creative directors at fashionable digital-advertising agencies in expensive coastal cities. That’s not to say that every young person has tattoos, or that everyone likes them; a well-hidden one is still verboten in some religious traditions and a gamble with plenty of families. But compared with even a generation ago, being tattooed just isn’t a very big deal.
Much of that cultural change can be attributed to relaxing appearance norms in all parts of American life. But in the past half decade, many people in the industry credit Instagram with both increasing the visibility of tattoos and helping broaden people’s understanding of who might have one in the first place. The platform’s primarily female user base and aesthetically pleasing reputation have allowed artists with different backgrounds and styles to flourish. More people now see how a tattoo might fit into their personal style: If you want something delicate or nontraditional, or if you’re dark-skinned and want to see how particular designs might look on you, the right tattoo is relatively easy to find.
This widening appeal encourages exactly the curiosity that temporary tattoos are primed to meet. Tyler Handley, the co-founder and CEO of Inkbox, the buzziest maker of semipermanent tattoos, says that this new wave of week-or-so tattoos is made for the “tattoo-curious”—people who want to decide how they feel about seeing a rose or nautical star on their forearm every day, or those who aren’t in the market for permanent ink at all. Some people use Inkbox tattoos in situations where an actual tattoo might be a bit extreme, Handley says: “There are people who use it as an updated friendship bracelet. Maybe they’re all going to a music festival and they all get a matching diamond or star as a fun way to mark themselves as a group.” Teenagers might not be old enough to buy a real tattoo, but they still have an urge to flex for Instagram.
Like a throwback to the 50-cent temporary tattoos that kids once cranked out of, yes, gumball machines, Inkbox’s designs come on a sheet of paper. You peel a film, choose a body spot, wet it, press hard, and wait. Handley says that Inkbox developed a signature ink from a tropical-fruit extract. The company’s online store now offers more than 4,000 designs, plus options for customization. Next week, Inkbox will launch a second version of its tattoos that, according to Handley, will allow for more detailed designs, including collaborations with big-name tattoo artists. Ephemeral Tattoos, a semipermanent tattoo company that hasn’t yet launched, promises that its tattoos will be applied by artists themselves and last three months.
Semipermanent-tattoo companies aren’t the only businesses attempting to bridge the gap between tattoo neophytes and traditional tattooers—some of whom aren’t amused to often find themselves in the position of trying to re-create a totally different artist’s work from an iPhone image. Nice Tattoo Parlor, a permanent-tattoo shop in Brooklyn, for example, offers a bright space with velvet couches and a promise that everyone will be, well, nice. If you’ve ever gotten a tattoo in a more traditional shop, you probably know that gruff-at-best customer service can be enough to spook nervous newcomers from asking questions or sticking around long enough to get tatted. (I once stammeringly described a design idea to a large, tattoo-covered man while speed metal played in the background, only for him to reject it with a blunt, “No. Won’t work.” Thankfully, we figured something out.)
Modern changes in tattooing aren’t all made with the intent to serve Instagram users, of course, but the platform’s broadening of tattoo culture has hastened their arrival. Instagram has taught a generation of Americans what makes for a good photo. You need contrast and strong lines—requirements that have spurred trends for ultra-bold liquid lipsticks, extra-thick eyelash extensions, and a semipermanent eyebrow-filling process called microblading, in addition to temporary tattoos. “A lot of the reasons you’d wear a beauty product are the same reasons you’d wear Inkbox or a temporary tattoo in general,” Handley says. Presenting your life on social platforms requires a slightly different skill set—and different tools—than just being yourself at a party. Many young people treat social platforms as fun-house mirrors through which they can create themselves at will.
The prevalence of posting pictures of oneself, especially among young women, inspires a lot of hand-wringing by people who worry it could be inspiring either vanity or self-loathing. Time spent on social media, in general, can be pretty bad for people’s well-being, and it’s correlated with depression, loneliness, isolation, and a sedentary lifestyle. Looking at the selfies of very beautiful people also has the potential to harm how others see themselves. As a result, people understandably assume that frequently taking selfies might be a cause—or at least an indicator—of some kind of pain as well.
Amy Niu, a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin who’s currently conducting a study on selfie taking and self-perception among college-aged women in the United States and China, isn’t as worried. “In the U.S. sample, I found there’s no correlation between selfie taking and satisfaction with physical appearance,” Niu says. In the Chinese group, “it’s a positive correlation. It’s possible that people who are more confident in their looks are more likely to take selfies.”
She emphasizes that research on the topic is still limited and that hers is ongoing, but she says her results so far are consistent with other recent studies on the topic. For young women, it seems like selfies are what you make of them. The pictures are often an opportunity to play with identity and expression, or a way to collect feedback on different looks—including realistic temporary tattoos.
During our conversation, Handley joked about young people’s inability to commit to a single look as a boon to his company. This sentiment, in fact, gets tossed around frequently, and with varying levels of seriousness, about young Americans: They’re too busy checking out new cities, new technology, new sexualities, and new foods to settle into an identity, build a career, buy a house, get married, and become respectable adults. Now they can’t even pick a tattoo.
But even for me, a relatively young person who has chosen to endure “forever” with a surprise eyeball on her bicep, it’s hard to see others’ enthusiasm for trying out temporary options before they take the full plunge as anything but deeply sensible. It’s impossible to predict how permanently altering your skin and looking down at that decision every day will make you feel if you’ve never done it before, and it’s probably not meant for everyone who’s curious about it. A try-before-you-buy model of body art is not a bad idea.
Still, as with anything deeply sensible, temporary tattoos can feel just a little lame. Part of the magic of tattoos for me is the emotional roller coaster—the rush of adrenaline from a fresh wound, the giddiness of showing a new tattoo to friends, the moment of panic at having possibly made a difficult-to-fix mistake. Permanent tattoos are always a small admission that plenty of decisions you make every day can’t be meaningfully reversed, even if you can’t see the results in your skin. My gumball-machine tattoo, at least, turned out great.