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The acquisition of Toronto temporary-tattoo startup Inkbox, announced Tuesday, will open up a wider swath of the skin-art market for Bic.Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press

The French pen maker Société Bic SA is inking a deal with the temporary-tattoo company Inkbox Ink Inc., buying the Toronto startup for US$65-million.

Tattoos have spent the past two decades shifting from an underground art form to a mainstream cultural identifier, just as likely to be tucked under an accountant’s sleeve as they are to appear on the arm – or face – of a pop star. Brothers Tyler and Braden Handley launched Inkbox in 2015 to offer consumers something a little less permanent: tattoos that last a week or two.

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Bic’s investment in temporary tattoos is a natural extension of its expertise in consumer goods with fleeting lifespans: not just ink-bearing pens, but lighters and razors the world over bear its black-and-yellow logo. It had already been exploring the temporary-tattoo market, selling stencil kits and markers designed for the skin to last a few days.

The Inkbox acquisition, announced Tuesday, will open up a wider swath of the skin-art market for Bic. Inkbox has zeroed in on a consumer segment that wants more sophisticated body art than a stick-and-peel temporary tattoo, but less permanent than a real tattoo. It brought in US$27-million in revenue last year alone from its catalogue of more than 10,000 designs and sales of its custom tattoo marker.

After more than 75 years selling devices people need in order to communicate, Bic chief executive officer Gonzalve Bich said in an interview that the company has been trying to expand its product lines to help people communicate what they want. Today, that includes tattoos.

“That’s where Tyler and Braden come in,” said Mr. Bich, whose grandfather founded the company in 1945 and who has tried numerous Inkbox tattoos, including designs from the late New York pop artist Keith Haring. “They understood that there was an unmet need, which is to be able to use your skin as a medium for self-expression.”

Inkbox CEO Tyler Handley said in an interview that the company was at a turning point this past year, needing fresh funding for product development and to expand into new markets in order to sustain growth.

Inkbox CEO Tyler Handley says the Toronto temporary-tattoo startup hit a turning point this past year.Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press

After weighing the pros and cons of doing so through venture or private-equity financing, and speaking with Bic executives over the course of about a year, he said the company’s executives decided working within Bic made the most sense for their needs. “These are all areas where they have a ton of expertise and resources to help us scale,” Mr. Handley said.

The idea for the company was prompted by the fact that the permanence of tattoos can make picking a design a high-pressure decision. Neither of the Handley brothers had tattoos at the time. Tyler wanted a tattoo of a geometric pattern, but worried it would be too trendy. Permanent tattoos, are, after all, permanent. “It was something I knew would not represent me forever,” he said. (After immersing himself in the world of tattoos, however, he now has about a dozen, and the idea of permanence doesn’t scare him – even if some of his tattoos are “stupid and funny.” His brother’s tattoos are now “uncountable.”)

The temporary tattoos that have been a mainstay for children’s parties for decades are effectively stickers that sit atop the skin. The Handley brothers sought to find a way to make them more sophisticated and long-lasting, first with a $10,000 loan and a Kickstarter fundraiser. (Survivor host Jeff Probst was also an early investor, and they later raised several rounds of venture capital.) The founders came across a fruit called Genipa americana, which Indigenous peoples in Central and South America have used to dye their skin for centuries.

The company found a way to use an extract from the fruit to temporarily dye the layer of dead cells that sits atop the skin, which takes about a week or two to come off. Inkbox has since spent years refining its tattoo tech. They work across a range of skin colours, and can be applied at home with a peel-and-stick application, taking about 24 hours to react with the skin’s collagen and proteins to become fully visible.

Inkbox will function as an autonomous organization within Bic, and the majority of its 158 employees that are based in Toronto will remain there, Mr. Handley said.

Golden Ventures was one of Inkbox’s early investors, and partner Ameet Shah applied a new Inkbox tattoo at each board meeting to see how the product evolved. The Handley brothers, he said, “built a category-defining company while staying true to the mission and cultivating an inclusive brand.”

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