With an estimated 20pc of people who get inked expressing regret, tattoo removal has become big business. We talk to the industry experts and those who have braved the painful process
Like so many before her, Mary Kelly fell for tattooing hook, line and sinker in her teenage years, as a way to express herself through body art.
“I thought they were amazing,” she recalls. “I love the experience of getting a tattoo. But knowing how hard they are to remove, I will never get one done again.”
Five years, ago, the Swords native had decided to look into removing some of her existing tattoos. Although there are some she will never get rid of, she is in the process of removing five tattoos. “When I got some of them done, I was quite young, about 18,” she says. “But life changes. They don’t look as nice as I thought they did. The first one didn’t turn out the way it was meant to. The minute I left the tattoo shop I hated it. It looks like a child drew it.
“There’s another one on my back that I’d like to get removed,” she adds. “Stars were popular years ago — you can’t see them day to day, but during the summer they start to bother me.”
Mary was so impressed with the treatment that she received at Fade Laser in Grafton Street, that she retrained as an aesthetic laser technician, and now helps others to remove their often-regretted tattoos.
Gearing up to get married in the next year or two, Mary has decided that she doesn’t want to wear concealing makeup when the big day comes. “You just hear so many people saying that they can’t wear a certain style of wedding dress, and that they don’t want to see the tattoos they’ve gotten in the [wedding] pictures,” Mary explains.
Earlier this year, makeup artist Bonnie Ryan was forced to use body makeup for her wedding day while she was undergoing laser removal to remove a large back tattoo; a quote that said, ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’. She noted on Instagram: “It served its purpose and now it’s time to move on. I got it very young and just don’t feel it’s my style anymore.”
RTÉ broadcaster Jennifer Zamparelli echoed similar statements on social media recently, noting that she was in the process of removing a tattoo that she ‘regrets wholeheartedly’. “I can’t have a Chinese symbol on my arm at 40 years of age,” she said last week. “No tattoo is the new tattoo.”
She may well have a point: it’s reported that in the US, around 23 million Americans live with tattoo regret. In 2021, searches for ‘tattoo removal’ in the US on Google had increased by 40pc, compared to 2020.
Aidan O’Connell, owner/founder of Fade Laser Clinic in Grafton Street, has been inundated with queries since he opened his practice four years ago.
“About 20pc of the people who get a tattoo also get tattoo regret,” he says. “Some people say they made a mistake and it’s not them anymore. They got them when they were younger and the tattoo doesn’t have the same meaning anymore.”
O’Connell is seeing a growing number of clients with facial, head and neck tattoos looking to remove them. “I know someone who got a spider web tattoo on his head, but unfortunately, his hair isn’t that thick anymore,” he notes.
“Everyone knows someone who went to Magaluf and got a tattoo from a guy with a gun outside a nightclub, invariably on their bum,” O’Connell adds. “Spend a day in here and you realise that everyone has a story of why they are getting rid. Some are hilarious, some are sad and some are downright bonkers. Part of the job is being a psychotherapist. You end up talking about some very poignant stuff.”
Removing an image that seemed funny at the time or a tribal symbol, once the apex of style that has fallen out of favour in recent times, is one thing. But others come in and avail of the service for more heart-breaking reasons.
Practitioners note that people who have been in abusive relationships and under the coercive control of others often want to get a tattoo they had done during that relationship removed. Some want to get rid of prison tattoos. Others who had a commemorative tattoo in memory of a deceased loved one realise that the ink becomes a painful reminder of their loss.
“One woman came in and said, ‘Either this tattoo goes or I cut my hand off’,” says O’Connell, noting that the tattoo in question — the name of her husband — took on a different meaning when he was convicted of heinous crimes.
“The thing is, you can go into any tattoo parlour and you’ll see a queue of people waiting to get tattoos, and often want the name of a boyfriend or girlfriend,” says Shirley Feeney, CEO of Shirley’s Beauty & Laser in Glanmire, Cork. “Then the relationship becomes a bad experience and they don’t want to be reminded of it. A lot of people don’t realise, that when they’re getting a tattoo, they will eventually get older. It might stop them from getting a job.”
Ronan McSherry, a journalist from Tyrone, got an Indian ink tattoo of a girl’s name on his forearm back in the 1970s as a 16-year-old, when it was ‘all the craze’. In 1995, at the age of 35, he decided to get a tattoo of Mickey Mouse to cover the original inking up.
“I’d just been to Disneyland and I was buzzing, but within a week I knew this was a mistake and I hated it,” he says. “Removing it 30 years ago was a considerable procedure. It was very sore, and cost more to get done than the tattoo did,” he says. “You could smell the burning skin. But I was glad to see the back of it. It was the stupidest thing I ever did, or at least one of them.”
Feeney has also noticed an uptick in clients looking to redress pigmentation from permanent makeup procedures; often done by less experienced practitioners on areas like eyebrows.
“I’m heartbroken for people asking me to fix green, yellow and purple eyebrows,” she says. “Often it’s a practitioner that’s not using the correct pigments on the skin during the procedure.”
Fade currently uses the PicoSure Laser, which is also used in the treatment of age spots. “Instead of converting from light to heat, it converts from light to pressure, so you’re not using heat to burn the tattoo — you’re using pressure to take out the pigment,” O’Connell explains. “It’s a lot more comfortable than older lasers. The treatment plan is dictated mainly by the size of the tattoo.”
Feeney, who has been in the business for over 22 years, is also using the PicoSure system, an innovation which she describes as “having enough energy to light up Paris”.
“It shatters the pigment and ink, and the body can remove them through the lymphatic system without causing any damage to the skin,” she says.
That said, it’s not a procedure for the light of wallet. The cost of tattoo removal is very much ‘piece of string’ territory; often, practitioners will work on a hand-sized area, and leave anything from six to 12 weeks between sessions.
“The removal costs around €125 per treatment, and it could take six treatments,” says Feeney. “That said, we’ve done some tattoos where a lot of it has disappeared after the one treatment.”
With the rise of tattoo artists in Ireland, there’s a growing sense that the sector needs to be more fully regulated. For now, there is no licensing or regulation of the tattooing industries in Ireland, although new EU regulations have enforced rules on certain inks being used. Yet with one bad review enough to put a dent in a tattoo artist’s reputation, there’s a growing sense that the days of the hastily sketched ‘joke’ tattoo are numbered.
“The thing about social media is that people can write stuff and tag others in it — if you got a bad [tattoo] job before there was really nowhere to post about it,” Mary says. “Now there are a lot of really reputable artists out there.
“In my own experience, I was so sure that I wouldn’t change my mind when I got some of my tattoos,” she adds. “I always remind myself that I loved them at one point. Whether you end up getting rid of them or not, that’s something you really need to learn by yourself.”