Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
All weekend our predominant activity was putting on gold and silver, shiny temporary tattoos for adults. Some of them looked like jewelry: stripes of gold that posed as anklets or floral crowns we wore as rings. Other designs were more random: feathers we put on our backs and triangles we stuck to our ankles. We applied them on the train from New York City, while drinking coconuts full of rum at Surf Lodge, on the cabanas at Gurney’s. We even put them on at 4 am when we returned home from dancing; there was zero chance anybody would see them, but it was still fun.
If my early thirtysomething girlfriends and I were addicted to metallic jewelry tattoos this summer, we were hardly alone. Moms on the beach, with three small kids running around in the sand, had them on their wrists, ankles, even stomaches. At a fundraising event in posh East Hampton, grandmothers showed off designs to their teenage grandchildren. Two women on the train back to Manhattan Sunday night made a pact not to wash theirs off when they went to work at financial institutions the next day.
The craze goes farther. A club in Boston had a temporary tat-themed party this past weekend. The editors at Vogue wrote about wearing theirs to work. Actress and model Cara Delevingne wore a gigantic one of a rose to the Met Gala this year. Beyonce and Rihanna both not only wear them, but have each launched their own line. The White House gave them away as party gifts at their annual Easter Egg hunt this year.
What started as a fun fad has now become a full blown industry. The companies making temporary tattoos are constantly inventing new products and designs that will appeal to bigger and hungrier audiences. New players are cashing in on the market. And audiences are responding positively, showing no sign that they will stop wearing their beloved tats any time soon. "When I first encountered them, I was like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ Girls had them on their necks, arms, legs, fingers, basically everywhere," said Sarah Owen, the Youth Editor for WGSN, a Fashion Trend Forecasting Group. "Now, it’s been elevated, and everyone is doing it."
The first player on the scene was former website designer Tina Roth Eisenberg, now CEO of Tattly. Fed up with her five-and-a-half-year-old daughter bringing ugly My Little Pony temporary tattoos home from birthday parties, she decided to commission artists to create stunning and handcrafted versions. In July 2011 she put 50 designs on a website. Within days adult friends, as well as stores like the one at the Tate Modern in London, were calling, asking for her product. "I started this as a side project, but I very quickly realized I had to take this seriously," she said. "I basically created an industry that didn’t exist before."
A year later, another player, Miranda Burnet, took the product further. She was doing product development research for the furniture company she worked for, when she stumbled upon pictures of women in Dubai who had painted themselves in 24 Karat Gold. At a few hundred dollars per design, it was not feasible for American millennials to copy. But she could make temporary tattoos that looked just as striking. She launched Flash Tattoos in June 2013, a company that sold gold, silver, and black designs that looked like real jewelry, kind of like what you would find at places like Cartier or Van Cleef. As Owen explained, "It was this brand that really set the scene, introduced the product."
As their products showed up on social media influencers, on blogs, and on celebrities like Beyonce, other entrepreneurs wanted in on the action. Some — like TribeTats, a company launched in February by former financial investor Degelis Tufts — tried to upgrade the product by introducing perforated edges on the sheets for easy tearing and higher quality products that would last longer. Others, like Shimmer Tatts, introduced cheaper products to sell at places like Walmart and the Dollar Store. Both Flash Tattoos and Tattly had to hire legal teams to get startups to stop using their exact designs, names, even descriptions from their website. "I had to email a company and say, ‘Congrats on your new company. Would you mind writing your own content?’" said Eisenberg. "I get it though, when you have a good idea, somebody is going to copy it."
These companies struck a nerve with their mostly women (of all ages) customers. In 2014 Tattly shipped over 2.4 million tattoo items to 100 countries, "some I can’t even pronounce," said Eisenberg. This summer Flash Tattoos hit a peak when it sold 700 items in one day, just from the website. TribeTats has doubled its sales every month. "When you ask if there is room for another player," said Tufts, "It’s like, ‘Let me outline my distribution strategy.’"
Dr. Viren Swami, a psychologist at the University of Westminster in the United Kingdom who researches why people get tattoos, said people are opting to decorate their bodies more and more to reflect their individual sense of style. "It’s a means of enhancing feelings of uniqueness or individuality," he said. "It is an expression of their aesthetic values." While permanent tattoos are on the rise — between 8 and 25% of the population in North America and Europe now have a real tattoo — temporary tattoos may be attractive to people who want the same effect without the commitment. (Flash Tattoos has clients who use their products to try out a look before getting a permanent tattoo with the same design.)
Burnet believes women like her products because it transforms them instantly. She remembers standing next to a little girl who put one on and asked if it was magic. "As adults, we kind of yearn for that," she said. "I think we have the same thought process." Some women say it makes them feel playful; others sexy or rebellious.
Eisenberg says temporary tattoos are successful because they are social. "It creates a chuckle," she said, "It creates a conversation piece." One day she put temporary tattoos all over her body and got on the New York Subway. An elderly rider looked mortified, until Eisenberg whispered, "They aren’t real." They laughed and talked the whole ride. Girls bring them to parties, and use them as an easy way to make friends and start conversations.
They are also perfect for showing off and sharing on social media. Burnet attributes Flash Tattoo’s success to Instagram: "It was this organic process of influencers wearing the product, people seeing images of products, people buying them, and then posting images of them and sharing it with friends, who then bought them." "When I’m talking to designers, I’m saying incorporate embellishments," said Owen, "Detail oriented shots get more traffic."
But none of this would matter if the product wasn’t so easy to buy and use, said Owen. "Accessible, and practical, and fashionable, that’s the winning trifecta," she said. "That is the recipe to success, the reason they are so popular." Packages of temporary tattoos cost anywhere from six to 28 dollars, meaning people of all ages and backgrounds can afford to buy them again and again.
They also come in such a variety of designs and styles that there is something for everybody. "Little girls love the necklaces, that is the first thing they reach for," said Burnet. "Grandmas and older women go for the bracelets. The teenagers and the festival crowd, they love the anywhere collection; they will put one on their chest or arm or face."
These factors mean these products have the potential for longevity, says Owen. But it also helps that the main players are doing everything they can to make the trend survive and grow.
Tattly, for example, is trying to producing new tattoos for new settings. There are beauty-themed designs to be sold in hair salon, food-themed tattoos for grocery stores, a tool kit set for hardware stores.
Flash Tattoos is experimenting with new uses. They recently had leather jackets made that are decorated with Flash Tattoos and produced a tutorial about how to make fun nail designs using them. Similarly TribeTats is trying to grow into a full lifestyle brand with a range of items, including an athletic line of tats thats won't rub off when you work out.
When I asked Tufts if she was worried about the temporary tattoo trend continuing, she compared it to Lululemon. At the early stages people said that company would go bust because yoga was a fad. "I truly believe that anything that makes women feel beautiful and especially something that is fun to use and you can share with your friends, something that makes you feel self-confident when you put it on, that’s really powerful," she said. "As long as we continue with that, I don’t think the trend is going to go anywhere. Maybe it can evolve, but something women love tends to last more than one summer."