Temporary Tattoos Make a Case for Permanent Ink

Inkbox makes two-week tattoos. Are they ruining an art form or growing an audience for artists?

Getty Images/Kevin Winter

There are plenty of things to consider if you’re thinking of getting a tattoo: the placement, the design, the pain, the reaction from disappointed loved ones. All of these issues — well, maybe not the pain — are tied up in the idea of permanence. Traditionally, body modification is about commitment. To get a tattoo is to submit your future self to the whims of your present self. It’s an act of trust that so intimidates people that many tattoo enthusiasts, followers of Instagram’s inked influencers, go unmarked. These people constitute the potential clientele for Inkbox, a Toronto-based temporary tattoo startup that is raising the hackles of tattoo traditionalists.

Founded by brothers Tyler and Braden Handley, Inkbox seeks to reconcile current hip you and future regret-filled you by proposing a non-binding resolution. Inkbox tattoos look real and last for two weeks, considerably longer than the peel-off numbers you played with as a kid. They allow people to test drive tattoos by harnessing the ink derived from the genipa americana, a fruit that indigenous tribes in Panama’s Derién Gap have been using to tattoo themselves for thousands of years.

“We worked with chemical engineers over the course of the past year to create a completely new type of tattoo based on an active molecule from that fruit mixed with other natural ingredients,” Tyler Handley told Inverse, adding that the formula took a while to refine and that a percentage of every sale goes to a charity organization that supports the indigenous people of the Darién Gap, which is famously the place where the North American and South American infrastructure are held apart by a thick jungle.

The genipa americana fruit

Flickr/Alejandro Bayer Tamayo

Inkbox’s temporary tattoos are available in two different application styles. The Formula 1S is a 10ml needletip ink bottle made for freehand designs similar to the way henna is applied, except Handley assures that Inkbox’s formula sets much quicker. If you’re not much of an artist, Formula 2 may be more your style: choose from Inkbox’s hundreds of pre-made designs and apply them directly to your skin with a patch, similar to the way you would apply a traditional temporary tattoo. While Inkbox’s application processes may resemble those of other kinds of tattoos, the finished product — a clear, pain-free, and incredibly realistic temporary tattoo — separates it from anything in a Crackerjack box.

And, sure, the designs aren’t all custom or unique, but they are memorable, on trend, and well thought out. They are not real tattoos, but they’re nice stand-ins for people unready to make the leap or unwilling to do so without taking a test drive.

This is where Inkbox’s product becomes a bit of a puzzle. Do these tattoos represent an alternative to traditional tattooing and take business away from parlors or do they help people get comfortable with the idea of being a canvas for a lasting piece of art? The answer isn’t clear to anyone. The truth is that it may be a case-by-case sort of thing.

Inkbox's formula sets in the upper layer of the skin and gets darker over a 12-hour period

Inkbox official site

Because it caters to fence-sitters, Inkbox has received a considerable amount of backlash from tattoo enthusiasts, albeit less than the Handley brothers expected. “We’ve gotten comments like, ‘This is so stupid get a real tattoo, you pussies,’” Handley says. “Everyone who says that, you can just picture what they look like.”

Handley said most of the negative comments Inkbox has fielded come from older tattoo enthusiasts and that even younger tattoo artists have been open to what the company is trying to accomplish. That isn’t — as Handley is quick to point out — upending the tattoo business. “We can’t replicate the full gambit of tattoo art because tattoo artists are crazy talented,” he explains. Instead, Inkbox wants to allow people to be impulsive without repercussion. Handley isn’t in the personal statement business; he’s in the novelty business.

“Our artwork is fun and it’s cool,” he says, “but it’s not an insane piece of art.”