The Tattoos at NYC’s Newest Shop Are Real — But They Only Last a Year

Ephemeral in Williamsburg pioneered a new type of ink that fades naturally over time

March 19, 2021 2:32 pm
Ephemeral tattoo artist
Ephemeral tattoo artist
Sarah Rocco

Ephemeral is a new tattoo shop in Williamsburg — a seemingly unremarkable occurrence if you’ve ever walked around the Brooklyn neighborhood. It was once the beating heart of the hipster revolution and the mountains of tattoos that came with it.

This one, however, is slightly different. The ink used at Ephemeral, which was developed over the past six years by two of the four co-founders (the two that just happened to be PhDs in chemical engineering), naturally fades over the course of 9 to 15 months. The founders met at NYU and came from a diverse array of households, all of which were anti-tattoo, so of course they thought, “What if we only do this for, like, a year?”

What’s special about the ink is that it is made from “medical grade, bioabsorbable, and biocompatible polymers, with carefully chosen high-quality pigments that are routinely used in foods, cosmetics, and other products.” Basically, normal tattoo ink clumps up when it enters your skin and is too large for the body to successfully remove (this is a simplified explanation, but you get the point). Ephemeral ink does the exact same thing, but the clumps are much smaller, so the body can eventually break down and then safely remove them.

A novel concept, so I decided to go get my own “made-to-fade”’ tattoo.

Now before I am called out on the internet, I want to establish a fact: I am not a tattoo connoisseur. I do have a lot of tattooed friends, some of them quite heavily so, but I myself have never had a needle with ink placed in my skin. I just never felt I had something meaningful enough to get permanently drawn on my body. And if you’re going to get your first tattoo at 31, you should be pretty damn sure about it. At 18? Do whatever; you’re young and dumb. Eighty-one? You’ve seen it all and you’re on the way out; the tattoo, like you, will be gone soon enough. But a first tattoo just past 30? You better carefully consider your options, buddy. 

Once you have an appointment confirmed (the wait is a few months at the moment, FYI), you’ll get a preliminary survey to determine what you want to get. If you have a design in mind, you can upload it there, or at least provide an idea of what you’re looking for. In my opinion this was the least streamlined part of the process: if, like me, you aren’t sure what you want, they could stand to offer a bit more inspirational assistance. Luckily I had a folder on my computer literally called “cool shit” from the old Tumblr days of saving everything I liked on the internet. I did some perusing there and found an image I liked, then asked Ephemeral for something similar but with some slight alterations. I got a call a few days later confirming my appointment.

Upon arriving, I was checked in and the artists explained how the ink works and all that good stuff you would hope for as a long-time listener, first-time caller in the tattoo game. I was made to feel very comfortable and not judged for my lack of ink — something I imagine is a big point of emphasis for them, given that their product will attract a lot of neophytes.

My tattoo artist, Marissa Boulay
Eli London

The studio is about what you would expect from a Williamsburg tattoo parlor: tall glass windows, high ceilings, polished concrete floor, plants, wood accents throughout. Down the length of the studio are five stations enclosed by translucent curtains and filled with soft incandescent bulbs. My artist, Marissa Boulay, came over to introduce herself and showed me the design she was working on based on what I sent over. I made a few tweaks and within 15 minutes we were ready to go. 

Just like at the front desk, Marissa was exceedingly welcoming and carefully explained what to expect. The tattooing process is exactly the same as with traditional tattooing. There are slight differences in the techniques that the artists use — for example, linework-heavy tattoos perform best with Ephemeral ink, rather than anything that requires heavy shading — but everything else is the same. All the artists even use high-end Cheyenne Unlimited machines, just like the quote-unquote real thing.

A little over an hour later I was done. It certainly wasn’t the most comfortable thing I’ve ever done; just like a traditional tattoo, you’re still getting stabbed thousands of times by a tiny needle. But throughout the process, Boulay was congenial and we talked about everything from the tattoo process to future travel. I felt oddly calm the whole time, and when I was done I felt very confident in the quality of the work. It turned out great. 

Post-tattoo, another member of the staff walked me through a care regimen to ensure things heal properly. Apparently Ephemeral tattoos, ironically, also take a week or two longer to heal than their permanent counterparts. They then handed me a print-out with all the necessaries, HC patches (healing patches), castille soap, Green Goo tattoo ointment and Aveeno anti-itch cream, which according to both my artist and some heavily tattooed friends, is something you won’t find elsewhere.

I left feeling very satisfied with the experience and excited for my first tattoo. Sure, the tattoo purist may cry blasphemy. But for someone like me, a tattoo-curious person who was never committed enough to pull the trigger, this was a great way to test the water. And if you fall in love with your Ephemeral work, Boulay told me that it shouldn’t be a problem to have someone go over the existing tattoo to make it permanent (once it is fully healed, of course). 

The final product
The final product
Eli London

But it isn’t just for first-timers. I can think of a few other situations where Ephemeral ink would be your preferred choice:

  • You think you want to get your significant other’s name on your body
  • You want to test out a more visible tattoo location (neck, face, forearms, etc.)
  • You can get an advertiser to pay you for a year of prime placement
  • You came in last place in your fantasy sports league
  • If your teen will not stop bugging you to get a tattoo and you’re worried they’re going to get a permanent one, this could be a good compromise (I’m not a parent, don’t quote me on this)
  • You’re an actor playing a heavily tattooed character in a movie and don’t want to sit through hours of makeup every day for months
  • You’re not sure how you feel about a specific design
  • You’re not sure if a relative died or just deserted the family, so if they show back up, you want to have the option for the tattoo to disappear

There are downfalls to all this, of course. For one, the process is about twice as expensive as the permanent equivalent. They also currently do not offer color tattoos, though I was told that was in the pipeline. On top of that, certain styles of tattoo, especially ones that are heavy on shading, don’t work as well with this ink. All very real and understandable negatives, but I think acceptable concessions if you decide Ephemeral is a good fit.

Also, yes, I am now already craving more tattoos, so maybe the 9 to 15 months it will take for the Ephemeral ink to fade will serve as a good buffer period for deciding whether I want to go deeper down the tattoo rabbit hole. 

If you’re interested in getting your own Ephemeral tattoo, you can make reservations now.

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