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.
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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.