I don't have any tattoos, and I probably never will. That doesn't mean I don't love the idea of them. Throughout my life, I've spent a disproportionate amount of time fantasizing about what I might choose, like the outline of my home state of New Jersey, or even—when I was a newly minted English major, at peak lifetime insufferability—a passage from Ulysses.
As a general rule, I'm not afraid of commitment (perhaps to an extreme extent: I've been on one online date ever, with a rando from OKCupid, and five years later he's still fishing my hair out of the shower drain), but I'm very afraid of committing to a tattoo. If I let my past selves have a say in my current aesthetic choices, I would have an asymmetric bob, eyeliner applied about as straight as the seismograph reading of a 6-magnitude earthquake, at least five butterfly clips adorning my skull at any given time, and a wardrobe single-sourced from Hot Topic. To make things worse, I don't do well with needles.
This is where Tattly comes in. The Brooklyn-based purveyor of exquisitely designed temporary tattoos opened a pop-up shop in Boerum Hill in November. There, you can not only buy tattoos in person, but have them applied for you. In early December, accompanied by my friend, photographer Molly Dektar, I paid Tattly a visit. I wanted to know what it felt like to have ink—the more, the better. (A writer for Mic recently took a similar journey of tattoo self-discovery: Read her account here.)
You'll find this Tattly outpost within the walls of The Invisible Dog, a factory turned art center and performance space on the same block as the company's office.
It's no exaggeration to say this place is gorgeous. Two barber shop chairs comprise the visual centerpiece of the parlor, the walls of which are lined with a dizzying array of tattoos.
This is me: Two arms, zero tattoos, and one I'm-totally-not-nervous-at-all-why-would-you-even-ask-me-that smile that is fooling, by my count, no one.
It quickly becomes apparent to me that my plan (to review: take the subway to Boerum Hill, have a bunch of designs applied to my body, learn something meaningful about myself) is sorely incomplete. How am I supposed to pick which tattoos, of the hundreds of beautiful specimens on display, are right for me?
Tattly's tattoos typically last between two and four days. If I'm this paralyzed with indecision over something that'll disappear within the week, I can only imagine that picking an actual tattoo would have me curled up into a fetal position.
Fortunately, Hans Hendley, the parlor's manager and application artist (that's the technical term, mind you), proves to be a man of both patience and vision. He helps me narrow down my selection of artwork and, perhaps just as importantly, strategize its placement on my arms.
I settle on a mix of whimsical and realistic tattoos (many of which reflect my passion for junk food). Some of my favorites are designs that Tattly licensed from stick-and-poke artist Tea Leigh, which include a black-and-white fern and a hand clutching a rose.
Hans' work station is stocked with Tattly-branded water bottles, Tattly-branded sponges, and a distinguished-looking pair of scissors. This all feels very official, which I appreciate.
For my first tattoo, in prime deltoid position, I've chosen a gooey slice of pizza. "Relax your arm," Hans instructs me, and only then do I realize that I'm clenching my entire left side as if in anticipation of an actual needle. I'm surprised that I feel genuinely nervous.
Hans applies the tattoo with a firm but gentle pressure, and peels off the backing with expert confidence.
My pizza is perfect. I love it. I only wish that I could eat without mutilating myself.
I watch, unable to restrain my glee, as Hans decorates the rest of my left arm with an anatomical heart, a cheeseburger and fries, and more.
We're midway through my session when a couple enters with their baby, who's there to receive a temporary tattoo of her own (naturally, they brought a camera). She stares, wide-eyed, at my arm, and her mother carries her towards me. She points a tiny finger at the cheeseburger—a woman after my own heart, if not my heart tattoo. My fellow ink enthusiast is 11 months old, breaking the parlor's previous record for youngest customer, who was one.
Thoughtfully designed temporary tattoos are apparently irresistible to children of all ages. Among the passersby who come in from the street to browse (and to shop—most Tattly tattoos retail for $5 for a set of two, and application sessions cost $20 for five kids’ tattoos and $35 for eight grownup tattoos) are mothers and elementary school-age children, a group of friends in their thirties, and an older woman who picks up a latté design for her sister. "She loves coffee! She's always posting about coffee on Facebook," she explains to Hans as she pays.
Two stylish, French-accented women in their twenties watch my ongoing transformation for a few minutes, and I ask them if they have any suggestions for more tattoos. "You should get the carrot," one says, pointing out a design on the wall behind her, "You could put it right in the middle of your forehead." Her Parisian cool is so hypnotic that I momentarily consider this idea.
At least to a certain extent, patrons are welcome to customize their selections: At my request, Hans snips off the "LET'S DO THIS" from a typographical tattoo that originally read "OKAY LET'S DO THIS," because "OKAY" is much more my speed.
On my right arm, our fearless application artist gets truly creative with the eclectic designs I've given him to work with, assembling a tableau of two boxers battling a dinosaur for the rights to an ice cream cone.
"I don't know what it means, but it means something," Hans says, wisely. I think so, too.
With my arms complete, I'm giddy, a feeling that doesn't dissipate when I walk back out onto Bergen Street. I really, really like how I look.
Over the next few days, I plan my outfits specifically to show off my arms. It's a balmy December in New York, but not balmy enough to justify the extent to which I am trying to make short sleeves happen. A few minutes on the train, in a pharmacy, in a coffee shop, or in an elevator is plenty of time to justify taking my coat off.
It's a testament to the creative field in which I am employed and the city in which I live, among other things, that this change in my appearance doesn't have a noticeable effect in how other people interact with me, besides a few coworkers and acquaintances remarking, warmly, that they didn't know I had tattoos. (Realistic? Check.) But those who know me well aren't fooled, if only because of just how many tattoos I'm suddenly sporting. I'd gone from zero to 60—well, 16, to be exact.
They do change, at least for a while, how I see myself. Besides being about the least extreme form of body modification I can think of, with the possible exception of a mani-pedi, this is self-care. The hour or so I spent at the Tattly parlor may as well have been spent at a spa. The tattoos on my arms feel like a bright coat of lipstick, or maybe armor. I feel more finished, like I've taken part in the authorship of my body.
But just a few days spent in tattoos is enough time for me to grow tired of their specifics, especially when I'm asked about their meaning. Describing the significance of the cheeseburger (self-explanatory) and T. rex (I am all about Jurassic Park, if not Jurassic World) is one thing, but explaining the boxers (I've taken kickboxing fitness classes, like, twice?) and lemon (sometimes I drink lemonade?) is entirely another.
All things, even—especially—temporary tattoos, must pass.
For a while, I painstakingly removed individual tattoos as they began to fade—scrubbing them off (I used vegetable oil) requires some effort—but by four days in, I couldn't put off the inevitable any longer. In the end, I was glad to see them go. As much as I enjoyed my new look, the experience confirmed my anxiety that I'm not ready (at least, not yet) to commit to one design, let alone more than dozen of them, for a lifetime.
That said, would I get temporary tattoos again? Without a doubt: Though I'll probably still steer clear of that forehead carrot.
Molly Fitzpatrick is senior editor of Fusion's Pop & Culture section. Her interests include movies about movies, TV shows about TV shows, and movies about TV shows, but not so much TV shows about movies.