A fine line: Why low-commitment tattoos are everywhere

Micro tats are a fun accessory, but they're not exactly made to last.

Maxine McCrann
Express Yourself
ByHannah Steinkopf-Frank
Originally Published: 

If she’s wearing the right outfit, Stephanie Cohn appears completely untouched by a tattoo machine. But the Panama City-based 25-year-old content creator has eight pieces of body art, from a moon on her pinky figure to a hibiscus flower dedicated to her grandfather. The common theme among the tats is their small size and slender lines. Compared to those who treat their body as a canvas for large-scale art, Cohn views her tattoos as more unassuming accessories. “I feel like people who have big tattoos, very evident tattoos, they have this competence, this personality to carry that art on them,” she tells Mic. “I think other people are softer and prefer a more feminine side to things.”

No larger than a few inches each, these designs fit into the increasingly popular category of micro tattoos, which have existed for decades but gained popularity in recent years. This fad is pushed by celebrities (Selena Gomez, Bella Hadid, and Rihanna, just to name a few) whose tattoo artists have become stars in their own right, with huge social media followings that allow them to charge exorbitant amounts for minuscule pieces. (Some of the biggest include Bang Bang Doctor Woo and Dragon.)

The trend comes at a time when more people appear open to inking up. According to a 2019 IPSOS poll, 30% of Americans have at least one tattoo, up from 21% in 2012. But given that body modifications are still considered (in some spaces) to be taboo or unprofessional, micro tattoos can be a sort of “ink lite,” a relatively low commitment form of body art. Cohn learned about the trend from the famous people getting them. “Before getting my first few tattoos, I must have spent a few hours online researching what tattoos these celebrities have and what placement,” she says.

While fine line tats appear to be a fun and subtle way to ink, there’s a catch: They don’t seem to be quite so permanent. In fact, some tattoo artists and enthusiasts are raising red flags about the longevity of micro tattoos. Often done with a single needle (referred to as fine line work), these tattoos are more likely to fade or blur together over time, erasing the details (often done in a micro realism style) that make them so eye-catching. Cohn has had positive and negative experiences with her small tattoos. A finger tattoo of a sun, representing her California upbringing, was barely recognizable a few weeks after it was done. “I don't know what my tattoos will look like in 10 years, and I just have to be at peace with that,” she says.

While fine line tats appear to be a fun and subtle way to ink, there’s a catch: They don’t seem to always want to stick around.

But, Cohn says, the tattoos she had done by artists trained in micro designs have better held their shape. Los Angeles-based artist Daniel Winter (aka Winter Stone) is one of the leading micro tattoo specialists. He takes into account the elements that affect tattoo aging — including technique, tools, placement, and aftercare — that are “the key to ensuring that your tattoo has longevity,” he writes in an email to Mic. To give your tat the best chance, Winter recommends leaving the protective clear stick film on for the first 48 hours after getting a tattoo, as it’s still fresh and in the early healing stages. Moisturizing also plays a huge role; he recommends applying a moisturizer or balm one-to-two times a day until your tattoo is fully healed. Wearing SPF and protecting the tattoo from the sun is critical as well.

Jena Ardell/Moment/Getty Images

Winter, whose A-list client roster includes Demi Lovato, Miley Cyrus, and Joe Jonas, has always been passionate about art. As a kid, he drew with a .3 lead pencil to create super fine lines, which helped him develop his signature style. “My tattoo style can definitely be challenging,” he writes. “It requires a ton of precision and attention to detail, because every pass that you make counts.”

Winter enjoys the uniqueness and endless possibilities of micro tattoos — but his favorite part of his job is connecting with clientele and developing art that has deep meaning to them. Lady Gaga’s “La Vie En Rose” tattoo will forever be one of his favorite creations, given “it was such a beautiful moment and in my opinion, roses are the most iconic tattoo design out there.”

He believes micro tattoos are popular because “minimalism is trending at the moment, and a clean, micro design is aesthetically pleasing to so many people. I think that individuals have developed a deeper understanding of the precision that goes into this form of art and really appreciate the uniqueness of this style as something that not all artists can offer.”

While his designs are viewed by some 500,000 followers on Instagram, he writes that “making sure that I deliver on this piece of their story is the most important and rewarding part of my day, regardless of how widely their art will be shared.”

Still, the social media platform has played a large role in Winter’s and other tattoo artists’s success. Jon Mesa, the co-owner of No Idols NYC tattoo salon, has been tattooing for 15 years and remembers the micro tattoos that were popular (albeit not as mainstream) in the ‘90s — mostly done by New York artist Anil Gupta. Gupta tattooed many celebrities and was known for miniature renderings of paintings like the “Mona Lisa” or Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” While the fate of many micro tattoos being done now isn’t known, Mesa sees how some older tattoos haven’t fared well. “You can see how they have aged and what failed, what didn't work. And this is done by somebody who's an amazing tattoo artist using the best equipment,” he says.

Mesa is known for large black and gray (and color) Japanese and illustrative tattoos — designs with a better chance of keeping their form. In a 2021 video with the popular Inked YouTube channel, he described micro tattoos as “ snake oil.” While he tells Mic that he was “pretty worked up that day,” he also notes that some tattoo artists are selling a product while not being 100% honest. “As a tattooer, I feel you should tattoo for, ‘I want a tattoo that looks good for 20 years,’ but that's just my opinion,” he says.

Mesa also sees Instagram as a sort of double-edged sword. It’s given himself and many other artists an unprecedented platform, but the false reality Instagram promotes also extends to body art: It’s full of freshly-done tattoos and few images of how they look after healing. Some artists even Photoshop their tattoos to make them look better, so many uninformed tattoo consumers might be tricked by social media. Mesa is also surprised by conversations with new tattoo artists who aren’t thinking about longevity, but just how their work looks in the moment.

“There's been advances on pigments, and they've also made better needles that allow the tattooer to work faster and better,” he says. “But I feel like that still has nothing to do with how the body ends up breaking down ink.”

It’s true that in recent years, the gravity of tattoo permanence has lost some weight: Tattoo laser removal and cover-ups are both increasingly common, and the technology for both has advanced. The company Inkbox has even embraced the ever-increasing speed of tattoo trend cycles, offering what are essentially temporary tattoos for adults — including many micro tattoos that last just for a few weeks. Mesa believes that, similar to past tattoo trends (like tribal tattoos), many will want to have their micro tattoos redone when they’re no longer cool.

It’s true that in recent years, the gravity of tattoos permanence has lost some weight.

Still, he makes a distinction between different types of micro tattoos, particularly calling out color micro realism tattoos. Without black or gray to add shading or outlines, these tattoos are more likely to lose definition. Mesa says that simplifying a design or making it slightly larger can have a big impact: “For tattoos to look bright and strong and vivid, you have to follow certain rules, and those rules have been around for a long time.”

Mara Weinstein Velez, the director of Cosmetic and Laser Dermatology at the University of Rochester Medical Center, tells Mic how natural aging — including wrinkles, sagging skin, losing or gaining weight, and stretch marks — can change a tattoo’s appearance. She also notes certain high-friction areas and those that create the most sweat, like the inside of the upper arm and armpits, hands, feet, and inner thighs, are prone to more intense tattoo aging. In contrast, outer parts of the chest, back, inner forearm, and the outside of the upper arms aren’t as vulnerable to factors like friction, aging, and sun exposure.

“Just as I tell patients that it’s important to feel educated about your provider when they see a dermatologist, it’s also a good idea to ensure that you’re working with a reputable, experienced artist or shop that uses high-quality inks and sanitized tools when you’re starting the process of getting a tattoo,” she says.

For Korean tattoo artist Younggi Jo, his primary focus is on producing long-lasting black and white designs. Jo’s older brother and fellow tattoo artist, Seunghyun, is known for large pieces, and Younggi wanted to develop his own style. He was drawn to expressing a lot of detail within a small space, drawing on imagery including astronauts and skulls, decorated with a crown or pierced by an arrow.

“I think these days, there are so many talented artists; the hardest part is to find my own color, feeling and style,” Jo tells Mic. He says handling a single needle tattoo machine is an acquired skill, because if you go too deep into the skin, the ink spreads, but if it’s not deep enough, it will fade faster. It took him three or four years to really master the technique; an education that also included figuring out how to cut back on details by focusing on the shape and contrasts of the design. He also uses almost solely black ink and adds a bit of white to make the image pop up and prevent components from blending together.

“The machine and the needles evolved so we can express details,” he says, adding, “The history of realism [tattoos] is just beginning, I think.”

Jo also has a dedicated Instagram Stories highlight for photos of healed tats, because he wants to combat the assumption that all micro tattoos age poorly. And, like many other artists, the platform has been great for business. Previously, when he had to rely on outside sources like conventions or magazines, it was harder to get his name out there. Now, his success — partially through social media — means he gets hired to tattoo people around the world. Jo, who himself has a full sleeve of tattoos as well as some micro designs, says many are drawn to small tattoos because they’re more socially acceptable in some cultures.

In his native South Korea, for example, tattooing is classified as a medical procedure that only a doctor can do, so many artists in the country are technically working illegally (though prosecutions are rare and at least 1 million Koreans have tattoos, according to the Korea Tattoo Association). This has also led many Korean artists to develop micro tattoo skills, as these designs are more discrete. Jo also connects the dedication to such a fine and minute craft to a Korean focus on perfecting an art form, a tradition he is continuing.

“The history of tattoo culture in the United States is very long and large, but the history of tattooing in Korea is not long because of the conservative culture,” he says. “Especially if we have a big tattoo, people will be putting some filter on their eyes when they look at me, especially for the adults. ... These days, the culture is improving a lot, so I look forward to a better future.”