‘Like being burned with cooking oil’: how tattoo removal became a booming business

When an 18-year-old Olivia Cerda got a vivid tableau featuring a snarling dragon and a grizzling tiger permanently etched across her entire back, there was not much thinking behind the decision. “I love traditional Japanese tattoos but I was just young and wanted my full back tatted,” she says.

Intense regret surfaced immediately. A few years later, she inquired about removing it professionally with a laser but was quoted far more than she could afford. “I figured I was stuck with it for ever,” she adds, “so I got it coloured in, thinking I would like it more if it was vibrant. I still hated it.”

The army veteran and model, now 25 and living in Las Vegas, is not alone. As the number of Americans with tattoos continues to increase – one survey suggests three in 10 adults have at least one piece of ink, up from 21% a decade ago – so too does remorse. The poll reports that 8% of those with tattoos – potentially more than 5 million people – regret them.

It’s no wonder business is booming for the tattoo removal industry. What was once a symbol of permanence that could only be covered up by another tattoo can now be erased – perhaps the ultimate testament to our increasingly throwaway society. The removal industry’s global market value is forecast to reach almost $800m in 2027, from about $500m in 2019, according to one analysis. About 40% of the market is in North America. In Europe, the excruciating laser procedures are also increasingly sought.

Advancing technology, surging demand and widening availability of services has seen prices fall – meaning it is not only celebrities who can afford the process today, even if it remains more expensive than the tattoos themselves – several thousand dollars for big pieces.

Removals have long been popular among actors and musicians – whether it’s Megan Fox unsuccessfully attempting to remove a Marilyn Monroe from her arm, or Melanie Griffith deleting her ex-husband Antonio Banderas from her body. And the increasing number of celebrity trendsetters erasing what was once for ever imprinted is doubtless turbocharging the industry’s rapid growth.

Victoria Beckham, Sylvester Stallone, Colin Farrell (who has undergone a flurry of removals), Sarah Hyland and Kelly Osborne – “It’s 1000000000000 times worse than getting the tattoo!!!” Osborne wrote – are among those to have undergone the procedure relatively recently.

Most prominently, the comedian and actor Pete Davidson is currently attempting to remove many of his more than 100 tattoos to simplify appearing in movies: “You have to get there three hours earlier to cover all your tattoos, because for some reason, people in movies, they don’t have them that much.

“Burning them off is worse than getting them,” he added on Late Night with Seth Meyers. “You’re wearing these big goggles so you can’t see anything. I’ll be sitting there all high off the Pro-Nox, which I actually quite enjoy, and then all of a sudden I’ll just hear, ‘So are we keeping the Stewie Griffin smoking a blunt?’”

Davidson told Meyers: “If you’re going to get tattoos, just make sure you really, really want it and aren’t on mushrooms” – several weeks after getting ink proclaiming his love for his then girlfriend Kim Kardashianwith a “My girl is a lawyer” tattoo.

It was widely speculated that he had that tattoo removed after he split with the reality TV star two months ago, after an image showed a bandage over the spot. But People magazine quoted a source close to him saying: “While he continues to remove his tattoos, that image is from set and not related to removing the lawyer tattoo.”

It certainly was not a clearcut denial – and it comes after he covered up a tattoo in homage to his ex-girlfriend the pop star Ariana Grande, which said “a thousand tendernesses” in French, with “CURSED”. In keeping with Davidson’s desire to keep his body art up to date with his love life, tattoo artists and removal experts say that much of removed ink relates to ex-partners.

“This is pretty commonplace with celebrities who are out of a whirlwind romance and perhaps regret the tattoo they got, or are just bored and want a new one to cover some they currently have,” says Dr Jason Emer, a dermatologist who performs laser tattoo removals in Hollywood.

The procedures can be a lot of fun – for him, he adds. “It’s almost like an artist cleaning up a canvas. You can see the tattoo react immediately with the laser when it’s being removed.” But the downside is that it takes much more time, patience and money than getting a tattoo: “So, ensure you love the tattoo before getting it – no one likes having buyer’s remorse.”

Dr Osman Bashir Tahir, who removes tattoos at his medical aesthetics clinic in west London, adds: “The rate of tattoo removal has increased significantly. But it does not come without its challenges due to adverse effects such as scarring and dyspigmentation.”

When people get tattooed, the needle deposits particles of pigment in the second level of the skin. The laser removal technology sends light energy to break them up and the body then works to absorb the loose fragments. It does not always entirely work – especially on striking colours such as yellow and green – despite the endurance of hours of agony. Swelling, blisters and skin discolouration are not uncommon.

This is partly why some, such as Pharrell Williams, take the more expensive option and have test-tube-grown skin grafts to swiftly remove their tattoos. “It’s going to be pricey, but … it’s worth it,” he said at the time. “I got fire on my arms; I don’t need fire on my arms! I’m a grown man.”

Others remove their tattoos later in life after connecting more deeply with a faith, to appease anti-tattoo prejudice among employers, or simply because they look dimly upon an impulsive decision from years ago. “I am a fan of pandas and at the time the Banksy panda” – posing with a pair of guns – “seemed to be everywhere, and I thought: ‘Why not get it on my wrist?’” says Glyn Sweet, from Bournemouth, England, who works in finance. “I don’t mind the panda, but being 42 later this year, the guns seem unnecessary. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing.”

He believes that the comparative ease in getting tattoos removed today compared with before could lead to ever more impulsive ink. “You don’t have to think of something you want for the rest of your life,” Sweet adds. “You can be spontaneous in the knowledge it could be removed.”

“Some 80% of tattoos we cover are names or symbols related to partners,” says Haris Sarajlic, a tattoo artist in Bosnia. “We cover them up every day. I did one recently and I know she’s going to be back in a few months to get it covered up: she’s only 18.”

Bianca Torossi, a tattoo artist in Oaxaca, Mexico, says that people today can be overloaded by never-ending streams of information and images on social media. “People often simply get a tattoo to be fashionable,” she adds. “But superficial trends change and then they feel that what should have been for life no longer represents them.”

Perhaps in a nod to this, ephemeral tattoos are also in the ascendant. “Tattoos that can be made to fade in nine to 15 months allow you to show the world who you are, even if that person who you are might change over time,” the CEO of Ephemeral, Jeff Liu, which has five locations in the US, told Axios.

“It hurts like crazy – it feels like being constantly burned on the skin with hot cooking oil – but pain is temporary,” says Cerda, who eventually found a removal shop she could afford in Vegas. “Overall, I’ll need eight sessions and I’m paying $600 for each one. It has a lot of colour so it’s going to take longer to fade away, but I’m committed to this journey.”

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