The New Face Tattoo Doesn’t Look Like One

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Cosmetic tattoo artist Saki Lee’s Brooklyn practice has become the go-to for hyperspecific, hyperrealist handiwork like evening out lip color, fastidiously applying dramatically winged eyeliner, camouflaging hyperpigmentation, and conjuring all kinds of brow transformations. Recently, Lee shifted brows that were too feminine for her client’s gender identity to a more masculine shape that fits them better. Using dye to accent lips, brows, or freckles — or to add eyeliner or camouflage scars — all falls under the umbrella of “cosmetic tattooing,” a term Lee prefers over semi-permanent makeup (or semi-permanent tattooing) because it underscores the seriousness of the procedure.

Lee, who has sleeves on both arms, discovered cosmetic tattooing after getting her own eyebrows inked eight years ago — and hearing that the artist was thinking of taking on an apprentice. “I just emailed her on a whim,” she says. It’s now been ten years, and the field is completely unrecognizable from what it was when Lee started. “Permanent makeup techniques used to be more similar to traditional body-tattoo methods,” she says. “Think grandmas with thin blue eyebrows and overlined lips.” But, over the years, ink companies have developed a more expansive range of colors to suit a wider audience, while at the same time, techniques and tools have been fine-tuned to create more natural-looking results, like the “nano brows” currently making the rounds on social media, which are done with a tattoo machine that draws in almost-microscopic, superfine eyebrow strands.

The majority of modern cosmetic-tattoo clients aren’t, according to Lee, big makeup wearers; they simply want to optimize their beauty routine and have to do less. And Lee has become known for her incredibly natural technique and knack for accurately mimicking various skin tones and eyebrow-hair texture.

But anyone who sees a cosmetic tattoo as an easy way to a less involved beauty routine should also be mindful of the risks. “As with any process that involves placing a foreign body into the skin, in this case pigment, there is a risk of allergic reactions,” says New York dermatologist Marisa Garshick, M.D. Plus, she says there’s also a risk of scarring and infection, and if you’re displeased with the result or it lasts longer than expected, you may need to seek laser removal from a board-certified dermatologist. Which is why working with an experienced provider is key.

While Lee has some trepidation about the future of cosmetic tattooing — with very little regulation and a lot of people picking up the practice, there will be more bad work and, she thinks, a normalization of removal methods — she also imagines plenty of advancements as well. “Parameters within the field will be broken or someone will find a way to execute tattoos in a way that was previously thought impossible, just like we’ve seen over the last decade,” she says. “There’s so much room to grow creatively and technically.” And there’s a growing audience for it, too. Particularly, says Lee, on TikTok, where examples of cosmetic tattoos abound and she has found an especially receptive audience — many of whom become clients.

How are cosmetic tattoos different from traditional tattoos?

The real goal of cosmetic tattooing is — for most people, not always — something soft and natural. So you’re applying ink in really light layers to get the desired saturation, and you’re also applying it in the top layers of the skin, whereas with body tattoos you’re really trying to pack in dense color and lines in one pass. Body tattooing is more like a drawing whereas cosmetic tattooing is more like a sketch, where you’re building dimension and layers.

What kind of tattooing are you doing a lot of right now?

Brows are still the most popular, but adding freckles and lip blushing (tattooing the lips) are gaining a lot of popularity. The most common request from clients is that they really want a lower-maintenance routine. They don’t want to take the time to do makeup, but they want to feel put together in the morning. A lot of people who maybe aren’t familiar with permanent makeup think that it’s something that’s catered to people who really love makeup, but it’s actually not. Most of the time, it’s the opposite! It’s people who don’t really wear that much makeup because they don’t want to do it. They want to wake up and take their dog to the dog park without feeling like they have to do anything to their face.

Tell me more about lip blushing or lip tattooing.

There are limitations to what you can accomplish with lip blush. You can’t add a significant amount of volume, but lip blush is really good for adding definition and color. Most people have neutral-colored lips; it’s really rare that you see a natural pink lip. And some of the things that happen with lips is you will see pigment disappearing around the border, which makes them look smaller, or you see lips that are really similar to the color of a woman’s facial skin, so they disappear or look nonexistent. But honestly, just like with eyebrows, for a lot of lip-blushing clients, it’s a low-maintenance thing. They don’t want to wear lip products anymore.

And who’s coming in for freckles?

It’s mostly young people, 20-somethings. I think the use and popularity of social-media filters —many of the popular ones include freckles — is bringing them in. I started getting freckles done myself very early on and I thought that it was a trend that would die down, and that was back when it was just, like, Snapchat. But I think that filters are so normalized and a part of internet culture now that it has made faux freckles more mainstream. People on TikTok have a love-hate relationship with them.

Have you turned away anyone who came to you for a cosmetic tattoo?

Anyone who comes off like they are making a very impulsive decision is definitely always a no for me. Anyone who thinks that a cosmetic tattoo will give them something that is better done with filler or Botox or plastic surgery is also somebody that I’m very clear with in terms of my limitations and what I can do for them. And I’m wary of someone who is a little too controlling, because it’s a process that takes a lot of trust. And I get it; there’s a lot of bad work out there, which can cause anxiety. But my consultations are very thorough and very clear, and I explain everything. And then skin conditions like eczema, rosacea, keloid scarring, or any kind of overly sensitive skin, can be a no-go. Injecting a foreign substance into someone’s skin with any of these conditions can cause them to flare up.

Can, and do, people use cosmetic tattooing in tandem with treatments like Botox and filler?

Yes, for sure. Someone who gets a moderate amount of filler, it smooths out the wrinkles so it plays really well with permanent makeup. I just tell clients that a safe window of time between those treatments and a cosmetic tattoo — and this is standard for anything from Botox to microneedling and chemical peels ­— is four weeks.

How painful is it?

It’s pretty minimal, but pain is subjective. I use numbing for all services, but I feel like if your technique is really on point then your client should not be experiencing that much pain unless they are very pain-sensitive. With every client, I will do a tiny spot first so they can feel it to help relieve any anxiety, and most of the time they’re like, “That’s it?” Most people may feel a little sore afterwards, almost like they have a sunburn. But honestly, at least half of my clients end up falling asleep, even when I’m doing eyeliner.

How long does a cosmetic tattoo take to heal?

Eyeliner is the easiest to heal because I typically use the color black, while eyebrows tend to look too dark first and then they soften. Lips heal very quickly, usually as soon as three days to a week, eyebrows maybe around ten days, and freckles maybe a week or two weeks. As for aftercare, there are two camps within the cosmetic-tattoo industry. There are those who like to do dry heals where you don’t really wash or apply anything, and then there’s the opposite, people who will recommend Aquaphor or an unscented lotion. I tend to like dry heals; clients can wash their face but just go around the area they got tattooed. Because of the superficial nature of the tattoo, friction from washing can prematurely pull off the scabby layer, resulting in loss of pigment. But I adjust my recommendations based on the individual. A client with naturally or overly dry skin could benefit from ointment versus someone with excessively oily skin. I also tell clients to do what you feel like is best for you. Just be mindful of sun exposure; obviously, don’t go on a beach vacation right after.

But cosmetic tattoos aren’t permanent, right?

Cosmetic tattoos are not permanent, but they’re not not permanent. And this is a really big misconception with cosmetic tattoos! Because it often gets labeled semi-permanent, people think it will disappear. And because of that, some people don’t think too hard about the decision. But it is a long-term commitment; it will fade, yes, especially if you’re going to somebody who isn’t that skilled and isn’t applying the correct ink in the right area of the skin, but if you want it completely gone, you will likely need to pursue some removal process in the future.

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The New Face Tattoo Doesn’t Look Like One