Testing Has Begun on the One-Year Tattoo Designed to Disrupt Body Ink Forever

Ephemeral Tattoos believes its product will make ink lovers out of even the most commitment averse.

Bastian Greshake/Flickr

Ephemeral Tattoos exists, essentially, because of moms. When CEO Seung Shin came home from college with new ink, his mother was less than pleased. The tattoo that started the business was an ambigram of the word “faith” that read “hope” from a second angle. That’s a nice idea, but she wasn’t having it. In fact, Shin’s mom was so upset he grudgingly agreed to laser removal.

It was not a positive experience. He managed one sitting and walked away with an infection, a scar, and a faded tattoo. “It looks kind of bad now,” says Joshua Sakhai, who now serves as the COO of Shin’s company. “It kind of looks like his arm got distorted after being mauled by a tiger or something. It does not look nice.”

But good ideas are born from bad decisions. And the entrepreneur inside Shin saw a problem with a potentially profitable solution: The risk of getting tattooed often outweighs the potential reward. He decided to find a way to mitigate that risk.

Ephemeral tattoos work just like regular tattoos, except they use a special ink that disappears over time. The reason regular tattoos are permanent is that the chunks of pigment are too big to be cleaned up by special cells called macrophages that are part of your immune system. Ephemeral ink uses a finer pigment, but holds it inside larger capsules, similar to the gel caps that allow you to take liquid medicine in pill form. The capsules are designed to dissolve after a year, at which point the macrophages can kick into gear. Sakhai says consumers should expect to pay a $50-$100 premium per tattoo for their product over conventional ink, but that the cost and exact business model are still up for discussion.

In a sense, Ephemeral Tattoos will compete for market share. In another sense, it will create a new market. In a third sense, it will compete with tattoo removal technologies.

Laser removal can cost $100 or more a treatment, and it sometimes takes ten or more sessions over the course of years to achieve effective fading. While some people are happy with the results, it’s not for everybody. Some would even go to the extreme of surgically cutting and peeling the skin off their body instead.

Ephemeral has its own removal solution, which is injected by tattoo gun and works to speed up the dissolution process. The company hopes it will take between one and three applications to fully remove a bad temporary tattoo, though it has yet to test its tech on living skin. Though it’s hard to imagine who’d be so desperate to get rid of ink with an expiration date, Sakhai insists its utility goes beyond bad breakups. He imagines a future in which people treat their skin like living canvases that can be edited and changed on a whim. Getting a new tattoo might — in his formulation — make sense as part of preparation for a big event.

In an age where the internet is flooded with thinkpieces decrying commitment-phobia, it’s hard not to feel a little cynical about a company that’s marketing the idea of ephemerality. But Sakhai, it must be said, has great patter.

“I am our biggest fan” he says. “I’ve always loved tattoos, and I’ve always wanted to get a ton, but there hasn’t been anything I felt so passionately about to put on my body forever.”

He’s never made that leap. But now he’s hoping to get some geometric linework done. He says that Doctor Woo is his favorite artist and that there’s an internal company debate about who will get the first tattoo.

There’s still a ways to go before the ink dries, so to speak. The company is currently seeking investors to fund 18 months of research and development to prove that the product works as advertised, and has no adverse effects. Animal tests began a couple of months ago, which is important both for safety testing and to see if the product works the way it should when it’s interacting with an actual immune system. Rats have gotten tattoos; pigs are next. So far, says Sakhai, so good (unfortunately there aren’t pics). Still, it will be at least ten months until anyone knows if the capsules work properly.

Ephemeral Tattoos isn’t the only company looking to capitalize on tattoo regret. A Canadian Ph.D. student recently sold his invention — a tattoo removal cream that he says can cheaply, easily, and painlessly remove tattoos by killing macrophages that hold pigment deep inside the skin. If it works as expected, the product could put a serious dent in the Ephemeral Tattoo business plan. There are also hip new temporary tattoos for grownups, and apps that will let you digitally try on tattoos in photos of yourself before you commit.

Clearly there’s a market out there for less-permanent body art. Whether the one-year-tattoo hits the sweet spot, and whether Ephemeral Tattoos can deliver, is yet to be determined.

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