The black trailer blended in perfectly among the food trucks on Austin's East 6th Street, but instead of hawking kimchi tacos to the masses gathered for 2013's SXSW interactive, film, and music festivals, it was supplying free tattoos. The benefactor behind this handout? Reebok. Just sign a release, choose any image, and—oh, yeah—agree to have video of your session used to promote sneakers online. Forty-five people—from college students in matching sunglasses to bearded musicians—eagerly accepted.
Once a mark of rebellion, tattoos are fast becoming one of corporate America's favorite branding tools. This spring, Red Bull and the British e-tailer ASOS also set up pop-up tattoo parlors (at Miami Music Week and SXSW, respectively), and Sailor Jerry rum hosted a SXSW party where attendees were offered free tattoos of anchors and other brand-related designs. Last year, HBO gave away Game of Thrones tats, and this August free tattoos will be offered at a VIP Lollapalooza event hosted by Chicago's Hard Rock Hotel. For today's marketers, tattoos are just another gimmick—a sort of permanent promotional T-shirt. "Who needs a food truck at your party when you can do a tattoo truck?" says Bruce Starr, a partner at BMF Media, the agency behind the Hard Rock and ASOS events.
Fifteen years ago, big brands rarely even let inked models appear in their print ads. The first wave of commercialization was the "skinvertising" of the early 2000s, when dot-coms paid people to inscribe their logos onto various body parts. Today it's subtler, with tattoos used to curry favor with consumers for whom body art is as familiar as fair-trade coffee. It's hardly the first time companies have co-opted a subculture to sell stuff (remember OK Soda, Coca-Cola's grunge beverage?), a move that often heralds the end of a trend's relevance. It's hard to stick it to the Man when you're letting the Man (literally) brand you. Could the rise of tattoo-as-marketing-tool mean the end of tattoo-as-hipness-signifier?
So far, the danger of impending lameness doesn't seem to faze marketers. After all, people remember the stories behind their tattoos. Taylor Gregory, a 26-year-old craft-beer distributor from Houston, took advantage of Reebok's SXSW promotion to get Texas inked on his chest. For the shoe brand, it may be a smart investment. "I'm making clear to everyone that Reebok footed the bill," Gregory says. "I'm also more interested in the company. I hadn't thought about Reebok in, like, 10 years."
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