Nasim Lahbichi remembers his first tattoo well: The recipe developer and content creator got the small outline of a monstera leaf for free, at a New York City bar, at a party thrown by the food brand Omsom. Having learned that the 2021 event, which celebrated Omsom’s one year anniversary, would have tattoos, Lahbichi recalls thinking, “We have to get there early because I want to get this flash tattoo.”
Compared to custom tattoos, flash consists of designs that an artist pre-draws for clients to pick from, and that are often but not always repeatable; the designs at the Omsom anniversary event included a knife, a match, and a steaming bowl of rice. “We thought max two, three people were gonna get them,” says Omsom co-founder Kim Pham. “We had no idea — the waitlist filled up in like, 20 minutes.” Because of that success, Omsom has offered flash tattoos at every event since.
Forget about the goodie bag: At a growing number of food pop-ups and events, flash tattoos have become the hot party favor. In recent years, the publication Cake Zine, the coffee company Couplet, the community organization Send Chinatown Love, the cookbook author Molly Baz, and the queer restaurant pop-ups of Los Angeles have offered tattoos at their events. After getting his second and third tattoos at subsequent Omsom parties, Lahbichi got the chance last fall to host his own pop-up with tattoos. (Even Eater got in on the trend at a launch party for the Eater cookbook.)
Tattoos commemorating food brands certainly aren’t a new thing. In fact, they’ve been heavily corporatized: Domino’s and Subway have run high-profile promotions offering free food to any fan hardcore enough to get a brand-related tattoo, and &pizza made headlines in 2016 because it covered the cost of tattooing for any employee who wanted to get inked with its logo — a surprisingly frequent occurrence.
The designs available at these more recent events, however, are not so schticky; many of them are food-related, but not all. Omsom’s designs, for example, wink and nudge at the brand’s releases or collaborations — like Spam musubi for a party with Spam, or a chile pepper and a disco ball for a rave launching its noodles — but are never so overt as a logo. “I think it’s slightly dystopian to have a brand tattooed on you,” says Pham. A bowl of rice is an Omsom tattoo only to those in the know; otherwise, it’s simply a bowl of rice, with whatever associations its wearer wants to map onto it.
It’s for that reason that food tattoos in general are so popular: Everyone has their own story. “I think food tattoos are perfectly balanced between being a little bit silly and being deeply emotional,” says tattoo artist Citrus Son. “It’s kind of goofy if you have a dumpling tattoo on you — but also, you can talk so much about how you learned how to fold dumplings with your grandma and your mom.”
Son, along with their coworkers from the Brooklyn tattoo studio Longtime, has tattooed at several food events. As the person organizing pop-up appearances for the studio, Son hopes to work more with chefs and restaurants; previously, they say, much of the interest has been at artists’ markets. But to Son, it’s a natural collaboration: The food world and the tattoo world often share a similar DIY, community-minded ethos.
This common ethos may also be why the food world accepted tattoos earlier than many other industries, particularly in the back of house, where the stereotype of the knife-tattooed chef is rooted in reality. The rise of flash tattoos at food events, however, shows just how far tattoos have come in the broader American culture. The people attending — and getting tattooed — at them aren’t just industry folks but the larger public, some of them simply fans of a food brand or of a creator.
In December 2023, Marissa Mullen celebrated the 10-year anniversary of her brand That Cheese Plate with a big party. The event featured a “build your own cheese board” spread, and a flash tattoo station guided by the same concept. For the event, Son drew up a selection of minimalist designs, including a wedge of cheese, an orange, and a bottle of wine, which attendees could either get separately or mix and match to make a tablescape tattoo of sorts.
“I think it’s an amazing way to mark a memory,” says Mullen, who used the opportunity to get her first cheese tattoo. “I always told myself I would get a cheese tattoo once I hit some sort of milestone.” The fine-lined wedge of melty cheese that Mullen now wears on her wrist evokes the soft-ripened cheeses like Camembert and La Tur that were her gateway into the cheese world.
But when tattoos are so readily available, as they are at these events, the idea that they must be meticulously planned or have a long-thought-about meaning can also go out the window; tattoos can simply be a fun, spontaneous act. “People who have never really considered a tattoo in their life will see me at an event and be like, oh my goodness, I should do one,” says Son.
This increased openness to tattoos is supported by data: A recent Pew survey of adults in the United States found that 32 percent of Americans have at least one tattoo, and that eight out of 10 of survey participants believe that society has become more accepting of people with tattoos over the past two decades.
To that end, Pham sees offering flash at Omsom’s events as a way to destigmatize tattoos and take some of the pressure off them. “I feel like self-expression shouldn’t be taken so seriously,” Pham says. Because as much as a tattoo is permanent, “what if it’s [also] just something that’s funny and cute and you see your body as a little scrapbook?”