The business of removing the permanent
Tattoos are meant to mark a moment forever, so what happens when that moment passes?
February 2, 2012
A physiotherapist, Lindsay McLeod is used to staying alert for the flinches and yelps that identify a client’s tolerance for pain. Today, however, it is McLeod who’s lying on her stomach, whimpering as a black wand runs over her lower back. A staccato click accompanies the tiny red light as it traces one wing of her elaborate black butterfly tattoo. “Okay, stop,” she says. She’s 15 painful seconds into a removal process that will likely take years.
Dr. Donald Mintz straightens and adjusts his safety glasses, waiting for McLeod to catch her breath. A 60-year-old otolaryngologist who arrived in Vancouver three decades ago with a specialty in head and neck cancer surgery, Mintz has been involved with laser surgery since he joined Arbutus Laser Centre shortly after it opened in the early ’90s. These days he splits his time between Arbutus and his own ear, nose, and throat practice. At first most of his laser work involved a procedure to reduce snoring. But over the last 20 years the tattoo removal sector of the laser trade has been growing steadily—it now represents at least a quarter of his clinic workload. (Some of this is pro bono work: cancer patients are often given small tattoos that allow proper positioning of the radiation machines. The clinic, like many, will remove them without charge.)
Mintz waits patiently as McLeod composes herself. She puts her head down and gives the okay. As the stuttering begins again, her toes curl. “I’m going over the lower part, which is going to be more painful,” he warns. “The lower you go, the more sensitive it is.”
McLeod’s butterfly is done in a stylized tribal design, acquired in Nanaimo at the tender, inkable age of 16. “It was a big trend at the time,” she says, “butterflies and the tribal thing.” The large black insect was marked for death when she began to understand that this particular badge of individuality, located on this particular part of the anatomy, had developed another meaning. In popular slang, it was the “tramp stamp.” “Tattoo on the lower back?” sneers Vince Vaughn in the 2005 movie Wedding Crashers. “Might as well be a bull’s-eye.” This is her third visit to Arbutus Laser. “I just grew out of it,” she says. “Trends go out of style.”
The tattoo wave that has swept the world since the late ’80s may have taken skin art into the mainstream (one study found 80 percent of parlour clients were upper-middle-class white suburban females) and resulted in an explosion of tattoo parlours—close to 50 Lower Mainland shops are listed on Yelp. But as those human canvases age, the parallel business of tattoo removal has been booming. Vancouver listings reveal at least a dozen local removal clinics, such as Surrey’s Unwanted Ink and BC Laser and Skin Care. Nor will they be running out of ink to remove anytime soon. A 2009 Christian Science Monitor story suggests tattoo parlours did well even during the depths of the recession, noting that the Tattoo Nation chain was able to both expand and raise prices during the downturn. The story quoted a 2006 survey indicating 36 percent of 18-to-25-year-olds and 40 percent of those 26 to 40 had tattoos.
Still, the popularity of individual tattoos seems to undergo a predictable decline: tattoo in haste, repent at painful leisure. Pressure to remove tattoos can come from anywhere. For some the issue is job-related, as they move into professional or retail fields where skin art can project an unwanted image. Just as common, though, is the embarrassing realization that a loving tribute to your prince has turned into a frog souvenir. “There are a lot of engaged women who do not want to walk down the aisle to meet Paul while wearing a ‘John Forever’ tattoo,” Mintz says. “We see a lot of that.”
“It hurts worse than childbirth,” says Lise (a pseudonym). Another client of Arbutus Laser, she’s a hair stylist who lived to regret her youthful decision to emblazon her body with her own name. She’s childless, actually, but the treatment seems to have made an impact on her. “When he started the laser,” Lise recalls, “I started cursing like a sailor. ‘Stop! Fucking stop, you fuck!’ It hurt.”
Mintz doesn’t mind the language. “Studies suggest cursing can alleviate the pain,” he says (Mythbusters backs him up on this), adding that the discomfort is often compared to being splattered with hot oil. The laser itself does not destroy the tattoo—it merely breaks the pigment into smaller fragments metabolized by the body, a process that continues long after the brief treatments are over. Thin-skinned areas such as the head, tailbone, and wrist are the most painful.
“It’s definitely worse than getting the tattoo,” says Tamara Nepstad, 34. “On a pain scale of 10 I’d give it an eight.” She’s in to continue the slow, painful work of erasing a design on her chest—a Japanese character meaning “love” that she acquired as a teenager 15 years ago.
Mintz has seen mistakes on both sides. One tattoo in his patient photo book reads “Satin/Jesus,” an odd juxtaposition unless the owner was truly fond of lingerie. Today he has another spellcheck patient coming in. Chloe, a pretty blond teenager, arrives with her friend Brandon, there for support on her first visit. Across the inside of her upper forearm are two lines of cursive script: Vivre sans espoir c’est cesser de vine.
It’s not Chloe’s fault—she asked for vivre but wound up with a phrase more like “To live without hope is to cease to add alcohol” than “to cease to live.” The artist has agreed to fix it, but first that vine must go. When the wand snaps to life, Chloe jumps but says nothing. At the moment the misspelled word looks visibly lighter, but Mintz says that’s deceptive. “It won’t begin to fade right away. It’s a long process.” (Spelling screw-ups aren’t all bad. Boston Bruins left winger—and Sami Salo ambusher—Brad Marchand got a celebratory tattoo last summer that read: “Stanley Cup Champians.” Go ahead—laugh. You’ll feel better.)
Another patient, Rachel (not her real name), also fell prey to poor parlour service. A UBC grad who got tattooed in Seattle, she had her first removal treatment a mere 11 months later. The flowery design on her forearm incorporated purples, greens, oranges, and reds so bright they could stop traffic. “I hadn’t really wanted colour,” she says. “But the tattoo artist said, ‘Oh, you have to get it in colour—it’s so much prettier.’
“I have another tattoo on my back that I’m okay with,” she says. “It’s black and easy to cover. But this one is so bright and if I want to wear patterns, it clashes. At work I’m always wearing long sleeves.”
In tattoo removal, colour is trouble. “Black is easiest; red is next,” Mintz says. “Greens, blues, turquoise—they’re the hardest to get out.”
After the laser treatment the tattoo is moisturized and bandaged. Despite taking precautions, Rachel now displays, along with her disappearing flowers, small white scars from when post-op blisters. At first she came every two months, but more recently it’s been once every three. After 18 months her tattoo is faded like a sun-bleached dress but still clearly visible. Depending on the type and location of the tattoo, the process usually runs $50 a square inch, and for Rachel that means—even with bulk discounts and some rounding down on Mintz’s part—she has spent to date $1,620 to remove that original $180 whim.
“Maybe there should be an age limit,” says Tamara, with the Japanese “love” on her chest. “They should make you wait until you’re 21 to get your first tattoo.”
“I’ll probably be more careful with my decisions in future,” says 18-year-old Chloe, finished with her first treatment and sporting a fresh bandage. “Still, I plan to get some more.”