the inkbox and/as late capitalism

the postmodern logic of a (less) temporary tattoo

Last month Tyler and Braden Handley, a pair of temporarily tattooed Torontonians, launched a kickstarter campaign for their product inkbox: the 2 week tattoo.

As the name of the campaign suggests, inkbox is a temporary tattoo, only less so. The product relies on dye derived from the juice of the Genipa americana fruit, which, when exposed to oxygen, stains human skin with a dark blue-black ink. Unlike “traditional” decal-style temporary tattoos, which sit atop the skin and typically flake off after a few days, the dye of the Genipa americana sinks into the skin, permanently discoloring it; the skin must die, and flake off, before the tattoo disappears.

I put “traditional” in quotes because, of course, few things are more traditional than this technique of tattooing. In 1940 Charles Wagley, a graduate student in anthropology advised by Franz Boas, published a short essay on the worldview of the Tapirapé people of Brazil. According to Wagley’s account, genipa dye had been stolen from the monkeys by the trickster Petura and given to the Tapirapé as a gift, and had been used by the Sun himself to stain the face of the Moon. The Handleys, according to their campaign, “got the idea” for inkbox from tattooing methods practiced by the indigenous Panamanians who inhabit the Darién Gap, and to whom an unspecified percentage of the sale of each inkbox is donated.

The Handleys position the inkbox as something that “looks and feels just like a real tattoo, without the commitment.” They already sell inkbox kits, but the kickstarter will fund the development of an applicator that can tattoo in minutes instead of hours. If a stretch goal is met, they promise to develop a platform that allows artists to create and sell genipa tattoo designs directly to consumers, presumably with inkbox taking a cut. Their kickstarter has been a tremendous success, with funding more than tripling their original goal with 22 days left.

The inkbox arrives at an interesting moment for tattoos, socioculturally speaking. Pew estimates that 20% of Americans have at least one tattoo, but 40% of Americans aged 18–29 are (permanently) inked. The Pew report goes so far as to characterize tattoos as the ‘trademark’ of this cohort: once a symbol of the counterculture, but now become mainstream. In The Atlantic, Chris Weller diagnosed tattoos as a skin-level symptom of an underlying identity crisis afflicting young Americans, a case he makes by relying on the research of Professor Anne Velliquette:

“We’re living in this world that’s so fragmented and so chaotic,” says Anne Velliquette, a professor at the University of Arkansas who studies the relationship between consumer behavior and popular culture. Velliquette argues that we’re more able now than ever before to “recreate identities very easily,” both online and in real life.

While there is nothing new about generic concerns over The Youth Of Today, Velliquette’s qualitative research does suggest a relatively recent inflection in why people get tattoos: as a way of establishing, rather than reflecting, their identity:

In 1998, Velliquette and colleagues conducted an interview-based study that found people use tattoos as a way to cement aspects of their current selves. “We were hoping to look at the postmodern identity, and really what we found is that we were in this modern era where people did know who they were,” she said. “They had a sense of their core self.” Eight years later, the team revisited the idea. The second study, like the first, found that people used tattoos as a means to express their past and present selves. But the people interviewed in the second group also seemed to need proof that their identities existed at all. They relied on tattoos as a way to establish some understanding of who they actually were.

In 1996, Jonah Peretti, best known as the the founder of Buzzfeed, published an article in the social theory journal Negations titled “Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Contemporary Visual Culture and the Acceleration of Identity Formation/Dissolution.” In the essay, Peretti links new trends in advertising with a theory of personality to argue that contemporary capitalism, as profit margins on traditional commodities (i.e., products) dwindles, must soon begin to compete over the creation and sale of identities:

I assert that the increasingly rapid rate at which images are distributed and consumed in late capitalism necessitates a corresponding increase in the rate that individuals assume and shed identities. Because advertisements link identity with the need to purchase products, the acceleration of visual culture promotes the hyper-consumption associated with late capitalism.
This type of acceleration encourages weak egos that are easily formed, and fade away just as easily…This identity must be quickly forsaken as styles change…Needless to say, such an ego wears out fast, inspiring the consumer to shop around for another one.

The essay received renewed attention earlier this year after Vox argued it both critiqued and prefigured the very type of site that Peretti would later go on to found, i.e. that when you go to Buzzfeed to read “27 things that only a Maine boy would know” you are temporarily assuming a single and one-dimensional identity (Maine boy), which you pay for (by being advertised at) and immediately discard (as soon as you click to the next listicle).

My argument is that the same analysis fundamentally explains the apparent market for inkbox. It radically opens the market of tattoos by enabling the rapid formation/dissolution of various (un)tattooed identities. With inkbox, one can, in rapid sequence, become/present as the type of person who has a) a tattoo, b) any of several specific tattoo, c) many tattoos, or d) no tattoos, all in the span of a few weeks. It transforms the tattoo from a strong signal of a permanent identity into the weak signal of a temporary one.

Paul Krugman, the renowned economist and public intellectual, recently blogged about the rise in popularity of tattoos as a kind of cultural capital, as has (with conclusions contra Krugman) Ezra Klein. But while they disagree about why people get tattooed, they both view tattoos as capital, i.e., as a thing owned, purchased, invested-in-and-dividend-yielding. bangbang, a celebrity tattoo artist / tattoo artist of celebrities, charges nearly $1000 per hour for a tattoo, but once you have paid for a tattoo by bangbang (which is also a tattoo by bangbang), you have it forever.

inkbox, by contrast, effectively rents tattoos to those who cannot pay the financial or social costs of owning one. It enables a tattoo industry more consonant with the post-Piketty understanding of ours as a rentier economy, which innovates chiefly via the arbitration of risk, masked as product and/or platform. The convenience that we buy when we buy an inkbox is not only the convenience of their patented applicator or ancient genipa dye, but also the convenience of no longer having to fully bear the burdens of a permanent tattoo, the heavy weight of present and future costs we expect it to entail.

But freedom offered by the temporaryness of the tattoo is an illusion, for to the extent that tattoos represent commitment, temporary tattoos constitute a commitment to the lack of commitment itself. The irony is that we are always already tattooed, whether by our tattoos or by our lack thereof. And it is through this irony that the inkbox both expresses and inscribes the limits of the tattoo form: at once the ultimate realization of the tattoo and its own exterminating angel.

A single golf clap? Or a long standing ovation?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.