The year is 2001. Eighteen-year-old Rees Barnett impulsively walks into a tattoo parlour and picks the trendiest designs off the wall display: a tribal arm band and a shoulder tribal tattoo. But over the years, both those symbols quickly went from cool to cliché, leaving Barnett with tattoo regret. "Unfortunately, I can't blame it on booze," he said. "[It's] one of those bad decisions that you wake up and realize, oh crap, I'm stuck with these."
Now, at age 32, the pension fund analyst is erasing this part of his past at Precision Laser Tattoo Removal in Toronto. A technician zaps his two tattoos with a laser while Barnett endures much more pain than when he got inked. "It almost feels like you're getting electrocuted, pinched all at once and times that by 10." There’s also the painful price tag. In total, he'll spend an about $5,000 on multiple treatments over the course of about a year. The original tattoos cost him around $400.
Barnett says it’s worth it. "It'll just be nice to think of the tattoos not being there, if I'm going swimming, if I wear a short-sleeved shirt to a company outing."
People like Barnett are fuelling a booming tattoo removal industry. Tattoos have gone from being something you get in prison or the army to a popular fashion statement. And what's fashionable one decade may appear horribly outdated in the next.
"I went in thinking a butterfly would be a sweet, feminine tattoo that I wouldn't regret," said 31-year-old Dominique Farr as she pulled back her hair to reveal the fading butterfly on her back she got when she was 17. The real estate agent has already endured 10 treatments at Precision Laser to nix it. "It takes away from my fashion sense and it's just tacky," she said. "I don't like it anymore."
Market research company, IBISWorld, estimates that, in the U.S., the tattoo removal industry is now worth $75.5 million, up 500 per cent from a decade earlier. The company predicts the business will be valued at $83.2 million by 2018.
Since he opened in 2010, Mike McLaine said his business at Precision Laser has grown by 300 per cent. He's one of a number of businesses popping up across North America that specialize in tattoo removal. Often, he explained, the regretted tattoo is no longer on the "what's hot" list. "We remove a lot of barbed wire now." He added, "One of my favourites is Looney Tunes characters. I can't tell you how many Tasmanian Devils we've removed."
The most common removal technology is a Q-switched laser that shatters the tattoo ink into tiny fragments that later wash away. Patients have to wait about six weeks between sessions and undergo, on average, six to 12 treatments before the tattoo fully disappears, said McLaine. "The reason it takes so many [sessions] is it's like coats of paint on a wall. You have to scrape it away."
McLaine said he has a new PicoSure Laser that can cut treatment time in half. But, because the laser is more expensive, the total cost is still the same, $1,500 to $3,000 to remove one tattoo.
The growing number of people offering tattoo removal is worrisome for some. Cosmetic laser treatments are largely unregulated in Canada. For example, in Ontario, anyone can purchase a laser, get training from the vendor and start treating patients. The Canadian Dermatology Association wants all skin laser treatments to be relegated to the doctor’s office.
Ottawa dermatologist Dr. Sharyn Laughlin has been removing tattoos since 1983. She said some patients seek her services after a bad experience at non-medical clinic, with the complaints ranging from incomplete fading to scarring. She believes all laser skin treatments should be overseen by a doctor: “You really should know your skin to do this,” she said. “[Non-medical clinics] don’t have that quality and knowledge about wound healing, about how lasers work.”
While there is no doctor on staff, McLaine said his laser technicians are trained in medical esthetics and laser technology. He adds that they offer a wealth of experience because almost every client comes for tattoo removal. But he supports tougher regulations to prevent just anyone from purchasing a laser and setting up shop in their basement. “Sometimes people call us and say, 'Oh, I heard of a place that will do it for half that price' and I say, you know what, you get what you pay for.”
As for Barnett, he’s satisfied with his service so far. He said he’ll never get another tattoo and warns young people to think before they ink. “They’re pretty popular right now, but definitely, if you’re thinking about getting one, think it over two, three, four, five times.”