Meet the Women Who Swear by Permanent Makeup

Photo: Dan Saelinger/Trunk Archive

Makeup artist Charlotte Tilbury famously sleeps in her makeup—something best left to a professional. But what if your #Iwokeuplikethis selfie featured a fresh face and perfectly applied liner, filled in brows, and a rich, but natural lip color? Because that’s what life is like for women who’ve had their makeup permanently tattooed onto their face.

“For me, [getting permanent makeup] was a no-brainer,” says Kathy Green, 39, who owns a cleaning business in Nashville. “I was fascinated by the idea because I wear makeup everyday. It really helps me that I already have the eye liner on.” Green had her permanent eye liner and brows placed by cosmetic tattoo artist Kathryn Alexander, who practiced in Nashville for many years and recently relocated to LA, where she works out of the office of prominent plastic surgeon Dr. Gary Motykie.

Alexander has been in the beauty industry since she was a teenager, getting her start as a makeup artist at her parents’ Merle Norman cosmetics studio. She went to a training session 28 years ago after discovering the concept of permanent makeup, and she’s specialized in the procedure ever since. (She also has several celebrity clients, but she’s keeping mum about who they are.) According to Alexander, permanent makeup, which involves tattooing pigments into the skin, should look natural. It’s not about tattooing a bold cat eye on to your lid. “I tell my clients, ‘When you’re healed from this, I don’t want your friends and family to look at you and say, ‘Oh you’ve had permanent makeup done!’” Alexander says. “I want [people] to say, ‘You look great! What did you do?’ That’s good permanent makeup.”

Eyebrow enhancement and eyeliner are her two most popular requests, though she also does lip color and scar cover-ups, especially for those clients who have had facelifts and want to cover the telltale signs. When a client comes in to see Alexander, she asks them a lot of questions about their lifestyles, looks at their coloring, and offers some advice. After the initial conversation, Alexander will draw non-permanent options on to the client’s face to test out colors and shapes, with a stern warning that it’s better to start off light—no Cara Delevingne brows here—and add pigment on subsequent visits. She offers a complimentary follow up visit three weeks after the initial visit, and says most clients “love it and want to add more.”

Generally, Alexander fills in color for those who have sparse brows, though occasionally she’s had clients who have lost all their brows permanently due to illness or chemotherapy. Darnell Young, 26, fits into that category. She was treated for a chronic illness with medications that made her lose all her hair on her head and face, an uncommon side effect. When the hair didn’t grow back after several months and her doctors couldn’t give her an explanation, she started researching permanent makeup for her brows. “I’d go to hug people and half of my eyebrow would rub off on their shirt. In the winter if it started raining I would freak out and have to run inside,” says Young, who subsequently found Alexander. She had her brows done, and was thrilled with the results.

Thanks to a numbing cream, the procedure wasn’t painful, and Young followed a rigorous post-tattoo regimen that included ointments and careful cleansing of the area. According to Alexander, there are a few days of scabbing and the work can look scarily dark at first. “I say, ‘When you wake up to use the rest room in the middle of the night there’s going to be a crazy lady with eyebrows looking back at you!’” she says, laughing. After a few days, the skin heals and the top layer flakes off, revealing soft color underneath. While the procedure is similar to regular body tattooing, the biggest difference is in the pigments used. Alexander says the iron oxide pigments she uses don’t change color (black pigment fading to blue is common in body tattooing) and the results actually are long lasting; 28 years ago her mother was one of her first clients and while the color has “softened,” it’s still there.

As far as eyeliner, a little goes a long way. Alexander focuses on tightlining and drawing on a very thin line. “I go in between the lashes with liner. Not only does your lash line look thick and dark and really uplifted in the corner, but because of the contrast of the dark in between the lashes and the white in the color of the eye, it makes your eyes pop,” she explains. “I have clients tell me they’ve never had so many compliments on the color of their eyes.” That was Green’s experience, who says she kept quiet about her procedure to friends and family until she came clean to a friend who was considering getting permanent makeup. “I didn’t really broadcast it when I first had it done,” she says. “But my friend always told me my eyes looked so perfect. I thought that was a huge compliment. I wanted it to look natural, but I also wanted it to look good.”

Permanent makeup remains a fairly niche procedure, and the industry has definitely had its share of PR mishaps over the years. A few years ago, the New York Times chronicled some of the woes, including the lack of regulation in the industry, the potential for disfigurement, and a spate of bad side effects due to contaminated pigments, which have since been recalled. Alexander acknowledges the issues her industry has faced, and admits that a lot of her work is correcting other people’s errors. “We went through several years of a lot of really disastrous work. We had to recover from that,” she says. “I do a lot of corrective work. People are more leery now.”

Alexander’s clients haven’t had any bad reactions, and she used to patch test her pigments, but has had such good results that she doesn’t anymore and stands behind the quality of her work. Alexander charges $750 for eyeliner, $850 for brows, or $1,500 if you do both together. Kathy Green says that she knows people who have paid less and had less-than-stellar outcomes. “I’ve had a lot of friends who have had this done and went to someone less experienced, due to a lower price, and got infections. You do get what you pay for,” she says. If you’re interested in pursuing permanent makeup, there are two professional organizations, the American Academy of Micropigmentation (AAM) and the Society of Permanent Cosmetic Professionals (SPCP), which can help steer you in the right direction to a trained and qualified practitioner.

Permanent makeup might seem like a weird procedure, but for those who have had good results, it is life changing. After Darnell Young got her eyebrows done, she surprised her husband after he returned from deployment to Afghanistan. He hadn’t seen her since she was bald and browless. Her hair has since grown in, but not her brows. “When he left, I was bald and had no eyebrows and he came home and I had hair on my head and new eyebrows. It was fun to greet him as a brand new woman,” she says. And Green is unapologetic to those who may scoff at the prospect of permanent makeup. “Now I’m very content with who I am,” she says. “I feel like if you can make something better, why not?”

See some examples of Kathryn Alexander’s work here