Highbrow eyebrows: Q&A with cosmetic tattoo artist Shaughnessy Keely

Facial tattoos aren't something North Americans really expect to read about in a beauty column, but a certain trend has been raising eyebrows lately.

With thin no longer “in”, eyebrow tattooing – a semi-permanent makeup or micropigmentation technique – has become a sought-after alternative to colouring in your over-plucked brows, or to replace hair lost to chemotherapy or illness.

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We don’t mean those thick, blocky fill-ins of yore, though. Eyebrow tattooing has evolved to use more realistic, 3-D feathering effects over the last few years, as well as offering pigment choices that suit your skin tone. And, with the rise of Instagram, it is now easier than ever to covet and connect with beauty techniques from around the world.

You don’t have to travel far to find one of the world’s most popular cosmetic tattoo artists, though. At 69,000 Instagram followers and counting, Langley-based artist Shaughnessy Keely is so popular, she only opens up her studio website for bookings for one day a month. We joined the queue in March to see what it might be like to try to get in with the “brows-ing” beauty, whose clients have flown in from as far away as Germany for the $700 treatment, and within seconds of the registration window opening there were 473 people waiting in front of me in line.

Semi-permanent pigments are used to create realistic hair strokes. - Shaughnessy Keely photos

A former student of Emily Carr University of Art and Design, Keely first mastered her illustration and design skills before moving on to tattooing and body mod – eventually becoming certified in cosmetic tattooing and micropigmentation. In 2015 she opened Studio Sashiko, a boutique, multi-artist tattoo studio (named after a Japanese needlework technique), to specialize in cosmetic tattooing, scalp micropigmentation, hairline reconstruction and eyelash extensions.

It’s her eyebrow tattoos that bring the world to her doorstop, though, so we reached out to Keely to learn more about this “highbrow” beauty trend.


What is cosmetic tattooing?

It's definitely not your typical form of tattooing. Cosmetic tattooing is meant to enhance your natural features for a result that is subtler than the average tattoo.


When you started cosmetic eyebrow tattooing, was it a well-known practice in Vancouver? Was it already popular elsewhere or in other cultures?

When I started tattooing, I think it was definitely something that was new-ish to North America. People were offering this technique in places like Japan, Korea, and Russia but I don't think it had become too popular over here, yet. I feel like social media has a lot to do with bringing cosmetic tattooing out of the shadows. The growth of this industry within the past couple of years has been insane!


What are some FAQ or misconceptions?

The biggest thing I get asked about would be if it hurts or not. Like any service, it always depends, but the majority of our clients are pleasantly surprised by how relaxing it is. We do our best to manage any discomfort by using topical numbing products. Most of our clients don't feel any pain. Some have even fallen asleep while getting their face tattooed!


A recent before and after example. - Shaughnessy Keely photos

Tattoos tend to change over time. What are the stages of an eyebrow tattoo and what can people expect after?

Immediately after the brows are tattooed they can look a little intense. This is because there is generally still some pigment residue on the existing hair and surrounding skin and there may be slight redness or swelling. After a few days as the skin begins to heal the tattoos will look slightly duller and depending on how well you heal most people experience some dry skin/flaking. About a week later (again, depending on how well you heal) your brow tattoo will begin to take on its more natural-looking healed state. Typically our clients like to return for annual refreshers to keep the shape and colour looking defined. 


How do you decide the look and shape of the future eyebrow? Describe the consultation process?

This is probably my favourite part! OK, second favourite from them seeing the results. I typically start by asking if they have anything in mind... often times the client will have a photo to share or a selfie showing me how they like to wear their brows normally. I definitely look at face shape and natural brow structure to determine a good starting point but we also talk about their brow struggle, and from there I can usually gauge how bold they want to go. Then I'll start to pencil in their brows, and once we have a shape determined, we move on to colour.


What common problems or conditions are you asked to treat?

I absolutely love creating a new set of brows for someone who has gone through some form of hair loss. We have a lot of clients who have alopecia or have gone through chemotherapy in the past and no longer have any eyebrow hair. It's pretty amazing to see the client light up when they see the final result!


Has Instagram helped your studio? What has its impact been?

Definitely! Instagram has been a huge source of new clients for us and it's actually pretty humbling how many people keep up with us. We have a map in our studio with pins from all the awesome places our clients have travelled from! 


What kick-started your popularity on the social media platform. What were you doing that got people’s attention?

I don't think I could really pinpoint what kick-started it all. I jumped on the Instagram app right when it came out and randomly and quickly began gaining "likes". Somehow photos of my tattoos, dogs and my face began showing up on the "Popular Page". Once I began my career in tattooing, I started posting before and after photos to showcase my work and it just snowballed from there. I think eyebrow tattooing is something that a lot of people have considered at some point in their life and through social media they were able to get a better grasp of what it would be like to have it done... it all becomes much more accessible at that point.


Do you ever get tired of tattooing eyebrows? What other things do you tattoo and how do you mix up your practice?

I wouldn't say I get tired of tattooing eyebrows because each client is so different from the next; but I am definitely interested in learning more traditional tattoo practices as well as perfecting other cosmetic services such as scar camouflage and areola repigmentation. Just need more time!


Studio Sashiko in Langley. - Andrew Milligan photo

Tell us about your studio?

Our studio is the best, in my completely unbiased opinion. Everything has been handpicked and (mildly) obsessed over. Our space pulls inspiration from clean Japanese design elements. We wanted to make Studio Sashiko an inviting space for our beautiful clients. Most of them have followed us on social media for X number of years and many of them have travelled a fair distance to see us ­– we do not want to disappoint. And as far as staff goes, we work with the some pretty amazing and talented individuals. We are such a diverse group of artists but we complement each other so well. We are also rapidly growing, so stay tuned.


Your following is dedicated – people queue up each month just for the chance to book an appointment. Any advice for people hoping to get a spot?

Keep up with our Instagram account (@studiosashiko) for all updates on booking! We want to make the booking process as simple and fair for everyone as we can. The only tip I have is to be on our website at 11am PST sharp on the 15th of each month. If you don't get an appointment that day, there is always another opportunity the following month. We are constantly trying to perfect our booking process to make it easier for everyone, but we also have plans of expanding our staff to keep up with the demand.


Can you name some other tattoo artists you follow on Instagram, cosmetic or otherwise?

Oh, there are TOO many. I feel like I am finding and following new artists on a daily basis! Some of my current favs that I am lucky enough to be tattooed by are Katie Shocrylas (@kshocs) and Riki-Kay Middleton (@rkm_tattoos).


Are there others like you? Can you name some other eyebrow tattoo artists around the world whose work you admire?

My favourite activity is late-night Instagram creeping. I find SO many great brow artists. We are so excited to be hosting Helen Hoi (@hoitattoo) as a guest artist at our studio this year. She is doing some amazing brow work over in Calgary. I am also a big fan of Kate Ireland (@kateireland) from Portland, Oregon. We hope to work with some more brow artists in the near future as we expand to our brand new location in Los Angeles, California!

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