Temporary Tattoos, now for grown-ups, too
At a Friday night cocktail party early this year at the auction house Christie’s, some 400 prospective buyers in their 30s and 40s were checking out the old masterworks up for auction, including Caravaggio, a pair of Canalettos and a sketch by Rubens. But the art that drew the most fuss from the collectors was free: temporary tattoos that echoed the paintings for sale, including demons by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch and the monogram-like signature of Albrecht Dürer.
The tattoos — which the Phillip Lim- and Thom Browne-clad attendees applied two, three and four at a time (and Instagrammed in equal number) — were so popular that party organizers eventually had to ask representatives from Tattly, the company that created them, to stop handing them out. It was after closing time, the bar had stopped serving, and the guests, still debating between Delft-like seashells and flowers from Balthasar van der Ast, showed no signs of leaving.
“That’s not typical for an old master painting party,” Emma Kronman of Christie’s said dryly. She added, “I can’t tell you how many people wrote to us afterward saying, ‘Do you have any extra tattoos?’ ”
So much for Kim Kardashian’s edict about tattoos: “Don’t put a bumper sticker on a Bentley.” In recent years, the no-commitment-required ink has gone from staple of children’s birthday parties to of-the-moment accessory for all ages, applied at events organized by Vogue and Christian Louboutin and worn by celebrities like Beyoncé and Sarah Jessica Parker. (The model Cara Delevingne sported custom Chinese birds and blossoms on her arms, neck and chest at this year’s Met Gala.)
There are now more than a dozen companies offering ways to sleeve up for a day or three. But perhaps no company has done more to elevate temporary tattoos to wearable art than Tattly, a four-year-old Brooklyn-based company that works with artists like Milton Glaser, creator of the iconic “I ♥ NY” logo; Stefan Sagmeister, who has designed album covers for David Byrne and the Rolling Stones; and the fashion photographer Garance Doré. Tattly tattoos are available at 1,000 stores in 30 countries, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Conran Shop in London, and Colette in Paris.
“I’ve never seen such tasteful temporary tattoos,” said John Maeda, the design partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the Silicon Valley venture capital firm, and a former president of the Rhode Island School of Design. “Temporary tattoos were down-market, and Tattly found a way to make them fashionable through high-quality content.” (Mr. Maeda has worn a Tattly tattoo just one time — “I felt cool for once,” he said — but regularly suggests them for gifts.)
Tattly started as a side project for Tina Roth Eisenberg, voice of the notable design blog Swissmiss (she grew up in Speicher, Switzerland), and the kind of person who has a permanent “out of office” reply on her email. Her other successful side projects include CreativeMornings, a design-focused speaker series now on six continents, and TeuxDeux, an app Fast Company called “the web’s most beautiful to-do list.”
In the spring of 2011, Ms. Eisenberg’s daughter, who was 6, came home from a birthday party with yet another sheet of “butterflies and ugly smiley faces,” Ms. Eisenberg said. “Granted, I’m probably a little bit snobby, but they were an insult to my Swiss aesthetics.”
Ms. Eisenberg, who has a rule that she can only complain about something for so long before doing something about it, applied the offending tattoos to her daughter’s arm, then promptly searched online for ways to make her own and emailed illustrator friends soliciting ideas. A specialist in user interface design, she created a website for Tattly (the name is a homage to her roots: “When you want to make something sound cute in Swiss German, you add -ly on the end,” she said). The site went live that July with 16 whimsical designs printed in vegetable ink, including a candy-colored ’80s style Casio watch that reads “late” (still one of the company’s top sellers) and a pencil-like scribble.
Thanks in part to Ms. Eisenberg’s blog and more than 430,000 Twitter followers, Tattly had 140 orders by the end of the first day. On the second day, a woman from the Tate Modern hunted down Ms. Eisenberg’s phone number and called to request a wholesale catalog. Roughly 30 percent of online sales are international.
Things really took off when, six months later, the Brooklyn Brewery requested a custom tattoo to distribute at its events. (It was designed by Mr. Glaser.) Soon, NPR asked for its popular radio shows to be reimagined as vintage ink, like a “This American Life” mermaid, and two tangled cobras for the two hosts of “On the Media.” (Take that, pledge-drive tote bag.)
Recent clients include SoulCycle, which distributed gold and silver wheels at its Hamptons studios; Mashable, which commissioned six emoji for its SXSW house; and the luxury brand Maiyet, which scattered hieroglyph-like black feather tattoos (one of the company’s symbols) on the tables at a V.I.P. dinner in Gstaad, Switzerland. Also this year, Wilhelmina Models ordered gold script W’s and “XOWilhelmina” (the founder’s signature) forArt Basel, Coachella and New York Fashion Week.
“We wanted it to be cool because we’re catering to the model crowd and the fashion crowd, and it was a hit,” said Tatiana Acosta, director of marketing for Wilhelmina Models. In what appears to be a standard refrain with Tattly clients, she added, “Models kept coming back to my office and asking for more tattoos.”
Tattly now offers some 600 designs, including vintage pastel-colored cameras, fruits and vegetables (distributed at the White House Easter egg hunt this year), Christoph Niemann’s stylized battery running low on energy, and a black “No sleep till Brooklyn” (Instagrammed by Gwyneth Paltrow.) Artists receive royalties from the sale of their tattoos; last year, the company paid out more than $250,000. Last year, the company brought on Yng-Ru Chen, formerly of Sotheby’s, to head up its lucrative partnerships (Athleta, for example, recently ordered 450,000 tattoos) and court the company’s wish list of artists.
Paola Antonelli, senior curator of the department of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, described the tattoos as “so easy to wear,” and ticked off the ones she’s tried: “The spiral labyrinth, the carrot, the arrows. I’ve worn the golden watch.” Of Ms. Eisenberg, Ms. Antonelli said: “She’s Wonder Woman. Ideas are a dollar a pound. Making them happen is a real heroic thing.”
This Ms. Eisenberg does by sticking to her exacting standards. After a three-hour tour of a packing center in New Jersey, she was ready to sign on, until she realized the company “would slap an ugly UPS label” on shipments, she said, and wouldn’t let her change it. In what she described as her “very unusual, refreshing, direct way,” she told them, “I will not ship with you because my packaging needs to be awesome.”
So it’s done by hand in-house, which until this spring was a 1,600-square-foot space in a rundown former factory in Dumbo. (“I usually don’t get in the elevator without food in case I’m stuck in here for hours,” an employee said in that elevator.) Recently, the company roughly doubled its space with a move to a 1860s carriage factory in Cobble Hill, alongside studios of three of its artists.
Ms. Eisenberg’s principles also involve buying quirky designs even if she doesn’t think they’ll sell (she cites one “sad straggler” of little people in cars that she won’t take off the website, even though “we have like 4,996 left” of a run of 5,000). Artists say she is more likely to say of designs “not right now,” instead of “no.” Her criticism is usually spot on.
“I did a pizza slice, and they said: ‘Make it more greasy. Put more pepperoni, more cheese, make it more drippy,’ ” said the illustrator Julia Rothman, whose designs include the “late” watch tattoo. “When I look back at the original, I think, for sure, it needed this.”
Ms. Rothman, who has created 81 Tattly designs, said she has been pleasantly surprised by the company’s success. “I knew because it was Tina it would be successful,” she said, “but I thought maybe it would fade.”
By COURTNEY RUBIN - AUG. 5, 2015