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I Got a Real Tattoo That Only Lasts a Year

Ephemeral semi-permanent tattoo artist

I Got a Real
Tattoo That Only Lasts a Year

Ephemeral’s tattoos are made to fade ... here’s how mine went

I got my first (and only) tattoo a few months after turning 18. I felt I had something to prove: that I wasn't afraid of a little pain; that I value style and design; but more than anything, that I wasn't the squeaky-clean Boy Scout everyone knew me to be. It was somewhat of a rash decision on my part, but it did the job.

I'd often heard that tattoos were addictive, but after growing more into myself, I had less to prove. My tattoo was a talisman of sorts, and I no longer relied on it. But that's not to say I didn't toy with the idea now and then. “That'd make a great tattoo,” I would think to myself, but could never commit to how it would be inked or where on my body it would go. I'd eventually psyche myself out and move on.

After all, you've got to really like something to have it etched onto your body, right? It's so ... permanent. Whenever the itch for another tattoo would arise, I'd start second guessing the idea of indelible body art. “Sure, it seems cool now, but what if I don't want it in five years,” I'd wonder. If only that brash boldness of my 18-year-old self stuck around. He didn't worry about that stuff because he thought he knew everything. Now, I'm sure that I don't, which is probably a good thing, but it sure makes decision making more laborious.

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That aversion to permanence is the cornerstone of Ephemeral, the world's first semi-permanent tattoo. We're not talking about those stick-on temporary tattoos that rub off after a few days. These are real tattoos, applied by an artist wielding an actual tattooing needle. But like out of a science fiction story, these all-too-real tattoos don't last forever. Originally, the company was advertising that the tattoos were made to fade away to nothing in “nine months to a year.” That eventually got extended to 15 months and now they say, after thousands of tattoos and progress reports, that depending on the size and a person's individual skin, the tattoos will fade away but could take anywhere from one to three years.

How does this work, anyway? The ink is made of a medical-grade, biodegradable solution. This means it breaks down naturally over time, disappearing as the particles become small enough to be removed by the body. Not unlike how your body metabolizes the ink after laser tattoo removal. All the ingredients are FDA-approved, developed over six years in collaboration with PhDs in chemical engineering and several dermatologists. The ink goes into the skin like any other tattoo, but fades away before you could ever regret getting one in the first place. This, I had to try.

Ephemeral's semi-permanent tattoo studio in Los Angeles

Ephemeral Tattoo in Los Angeles.

Ephemeral's semi-permanent tattoo studio in Los Angeles

Ephemeral Tattoo in Los Angeles.

Luckily, their newest studio had just opened in Los Angeles. Along with their original shops in New York, they've since opened in Chicago, Houston, Miami, San Francisco and Washington, DC. Everything about the process has been modernized and streamlined. Have an idea about the tattoo you want but don't have a design finalized? When you reserve an appointment, you can upload several reference shots and a tattoo artist can draw something for you based on your original ideas.

Line-drawn arrow tattoo
Line-drawn arrow tattoo

I had my design ready to go. A simple line-drawn arrow. Visually, it's cool and clean, but I also liked what it symbolized: the all-too-true notion that we often have to be pulled back before moving forward. It was a way to mark the sensation I'd been feeling throughout the pandemic with some hope about where we're headed in the future. A tattoo that symbolizes movement and would steadily fade as we move into the future seemed perfect.

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Walking into the studio, it's suddenly clear: this isn't your typical tattoo parlor. It looks like a cross between an Apple store and a well-styled loft. The air smells like sage and eucalyptus. The waiting area has cushy, low-slung chairs and is stocked with designer snacks and waters like a high-end minibar. That was a welcome treat, but what really surprised me is that there was no intimidation or requirement to be “a certain kind of person.” If this is your first tattoo, everyone here is happy to welcome you to the club.

Ephemeral's semi-permanent tattoo studio in Los Angeles
Ephemeral's semi-permanent tattoo studio in Los Angeles

I meet my tattoo artist, G., who brings me back into a small private pod where he has me relax onto a massage table and walks me through the process. He shows me several sizes of my tattoo on transfer paper. Once selected, he applies it to my skin and we confirm that the scale and placement works.

Tattoo artist G.
Tattoo artist G.

Then he gets to work. Unlike my first tattoo all those years ago, the tattoo machine isn't a large, loud contraption. It's wireless, compact and buzzes like a beard trimmer. And bonus, it hurts a lot less than I remember. Ephemeral actually pairs you with the right artist for the tattoo you want—they paired me with G. because he specializes in light line work. “They call me angel hands,” he says with a laugh.

Finished Ephemeral semi-permanent tattoo
Finished Ephemeral semi-permanent tattoo

In less than 20 minutes, I had a fresh tattoo on my arm. G. said that Ephemeral's ink requires a slightly slower motion during the application to ensure evenness and optimal fading. This is the only real difference he'd noticed. That, and the healing process. They take it very seriously, issuing you a complete aftercare kit and walking you through the process to ensure there's no scarring when your tattoo fades at the end of the year. Instead of sending you out with a tattoo taped with plastic wrap, the team applies a transparent hydrocolloid patch which helps shorten recovery time.

The patch and aftercare kit are included in the cost of your tattoo, which ranges from $175 to $450, depending on the size. So is the gratuity for the artist. In short, there are no surprises. And after removing the bandage from my forearm and seeing my tattoo every day as I type, I can confirm there are no regrets either.

My finished Ephemeral semi-permanent tattoo
My finished Ephemeral semi-permanent tattoo

The tattoo moments after inking.

Update:
19 Months Later

When I got my tattoo, Ephemeral was still quoting “about a year” for the lifespan of the tattoo. At month nine, my tattoo was still crisp and dark and I was fairly sure that it wasn't just going to fade away in three months. But I wasn't bothered. Others began congregating on Reddit and TikTok, worrying that their ink was lasting beyond 15 months. Others still weren't loving how their tattoos faded unevenly. Ephemeral took note of its customers' complaints and announced its “Regret Nothing Guarantee” earlier this year. While it may take more time, CEO Jeff Liu clarified that Ephemeral tattoos “will 100 percent fade away.” The reality is that this is a natural process—our bodies are breaking down the ink but just like healing, everyone will be a bit different. I'm now in my 19th month, and my little arrow is a mere ghost of its former self. Slightly hazy, the portion with the extra line work took the longest to fade, so if you're looking for a fast fading tattoo, my recommendation would be to keep the design simple and stay clear of shading.

Ephemeral semi-permanent tattoo nine months later

My Ephemeral tattoo at nine months.

Ephemeral semi-permanent tattoo 19 months later

What my tattoo looks like 19 months later.

Over the past two years, Ephemeral's team of chemical engineers has tweaked its proprietary made-to-fade ink, in order to provide darker, clearer tattoos. Their artists have also expanded the areas on the body where you can get tattooed and are now able to offer richer shading and finer lines. These are welcome improvements, but the changes also make tracking the consistency of the fades a whole lot more complicated. The bottom line is that these tattoos remain a marvel of modern technology and artistry. Are they a little unpredictable? Yes. But ultimately, they allow you to experiment without any fear of consequences.

FYI

Right now, the only ink color available is black. But shading is possible.

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