With the exploding popularity of tattooing comes a wave of customers keen to reverse the damage. Rachel Judkins went behind the scenes at a tattoo removal clinic to watch the magic unfold.
In a tattoo studio in Tāmaki Makaurau, a young man with an almost full sleeve of ink is ushered into a private room where he lies on the bed, bracing himself for the pain that will follow. But rather than adding to his collection of body art, this client is here for tattoo removal, and the chance to undo the regret currently staining his bicep.
James Harris, 28, was on holiday in Bali last year when he decided to get a tattoo to fill a space between his shoulder and elbow. Despite alarm bells going off from the slightly sketchy vibe, cheap price and tattoo artist who spoke no English, he went ahead. “I got back to our villa, looked in the mirror and hoped that the ink would die down,” he says. “I hated it.”
The new tattoo’s bold lines and dark shading didn’t fit stylistically with the rest of the work he’d had done, and unlike his other tattoos that he flaunts with pride, he has since kept it hidden away. Needing the offending tattoo lightened before covering it up with something better, he was sent by a local tattoo artist to Sacred Laser in Kingsland for a consultation.
For thousands of years, tattoos have been permanent; an enduring piece of art on a body’s blank canvas. But thanks to the introduction of laser technology, this no longer has to be the case. But while it is certainly possible to remove that Chinese character with an unknown meaning from an ankle, an ex-girlfriend’s name running from shoulder to shoulder or a gang tattoo on the face for those averse to National’s Thin Lizzy cover-up policy, it can be a long, painful and expensive process.
With colourful tats decorating 75% of her body, Briar Neville – laser technician and director of the clinic – is no stranger to the allure of body art. Ten years ago, she was managing Sacred Tattoo across the hall and was amazed by the number of people enquiring about removal. At the time, travel to Australia was the only way to get them zapped safely, so she started her own business, forking out megabucks for a medical grade laser. She has made thousands of tattoos disappear since, and opened a second location in Christchurch in 2019 to keep up with the growing demand.
The rise of tattoo removal is of course linked to the exploding popularity of tattoos themselves. “Twenty years ago the only people getting tattoos were the rebels, the bikers, the punks,” Neville says. “They didn’t want to fit into mainstream society, whereas people are now getting tattooed to fit in.”
Tattoos used to be a serious rite of passage – often representing culture, family or a significant life event – but these days they can be as fickle as fashion. With a tattoo shop on every corner, a market saturated with artists of varying skill, and people rushing to get inked on a whim, there is plenty of opportunity for things to go awry. Many people feel they have outgrown a youthful tattoo (that Playboy bunny no longer represents who they are) or want dated tattoos from the 90s replaced with more modern artistry. And of course there are the drunken mistakes.
Jared Maguire, an orchard developer from Tauranga, was on a multi-day bender back in 2018 when he had his son’s name and birthdate tattooed in large bold letters across his face. He woke up the next day with more than just a hangover. “I looked in the mirror and was like, ‘Oh shit, this is not good.’” He hated it, would catch his Dad looking at him with disgust, and soon found that judgement followed him everywhere and clouded every interaction, from strangers in restaurants to meetings with clients. He immediately started researching laser removal.
No matter their back story, every person starts their tattoo removal journey with a free consultation, skin assessment and a rough quote. A 5x5cm tattoo costs $100 per treatment, while a 15x15cm is $300, with around 2-5 sessions needed for a cover up and between 8-12 to shift the ink completely. No two tattoos are the same to treat, with variables including the type and colour of pigment, the age and depth of the tattoo, as well as the skin type and location on the body. A minimum of a six-week gap between treatments is required, so the process can be time consuming.
Neville says that a huge part of her job is managing expectations, as clients often want a quick fix. “I’m always saying to people it’s a process, you need time and patience, there is no hard and fast answer.” As she points out, slow and safe is key. “Tattoos are designed to be permanent. We are trying to reverse that permanence while also maintaining the integrity of the skin.”
Neville uses these initial consultations for Laser Removal 101, so potential clients understand the science behind what they are about to do. She explains that while our bodies consider tattoo ink to be debris, the pigment particles are too big to get broken down by the macrophage system. The laser uses light energy to travel through the dermis, shattering the pigment into tiny particles so the white blood cells can scoop them up and transport them through the bloodstream to the lymphatic system, where they are eliminated as waste through faeces, sweat and urine. The ink continues to fade for months, even years, after lasering, so people who can afford to take their time are encouraged to do so.
While the majority of Sacred’s clients are there for purely cosmetic reasons, some tattoos represent a bad time in a person’s life, so the process of removal can be a healing journey. Neville talks emotionally about a woman whose abusive partner restrained her and tattooed his name all over her body, and the difficulty she had moving on with those marks a constant reminder. “Sometimes I end up in here crying alongside my clients,” Neville says. “It’s not because of the physical pain they are experiencing, but the release of that trauma that has been carried around that is connected to their tattoo.”
The treatment room at Sacred has a more clinical feel to the tattoo studio access the hall, with framed laser technician training certificates adorning the walls and a collection of large medical-looking equipment dominating one corner. Harris looks apprehensive, but hopes the numbing cream he applied earlier will turn the pain down a notch. Neville dons a face mask, gloves and safety glasses before cleaning and cooling his inner arm with a machine that counteracts the heat by blowing cryogenically frozen air on the area before and during the treatment.
Eyes closed, Harris presses his head back against the pillow, a grimace on his face. The red laser makes a strange flicking sound as it moves systematically over his skin; you can almost see the tattoo being gobbled up, leaving a raised but lighter image in its wake. After two short but seemingly excruciating minutes, the treatment is complete and the pain immediately subsides. “It feels like you’ve got really bad sunburn and someone is hitting you with elastic bands,” Harris says of the experience. “Way worse than a tattoo, that’s for sure.”
After his treatment, Harris is given cooling gel and ice packs to help with heat and swelling, and some instructions for aftercare for any temporary blistering that might occur. He has learnt his lesson about rushing things, so makes a second appointment in four months’ time. Once the tattoo is light enough for cover up, he is going to take his time with the planning and design of the piece for this spot.
While cover up is a great option for people who are heavily tattooed, the majority of Sacred’s clients are there for complete removal, wanting their skin returned to the blank slate it once was. It took Maguire five treatments over the course of a year to remove his facial branding completely – far more expensive than the original tattoo after he factors in lasering, travel and accommodation costs.
He left his first treatment with swelling around his eyes, but was stoked to see the ink was immediately much lighter, which had an instant effect on his self esteem. “As I went through the process of laser sessions I could feel my life getting better and better,” he says. Subsequent treatments were easier and he kept going back every few months until all evidence of his tomfoolery had disappeared completely.
As she packs up for the day, Neville reflects on her work and how she gets a kick out of helping people turn their lives around. She has clients whose laser removal is funded by WINZ as tattoos on hands, faces and necks can be a barrier to employment, and her favourite part of the job is treating ex gang members who want to let go of their past. “Watching someone go through that journey is so rewarding because you see them change as a human,” she says. “You see them change the way they carry themselves.”
But even though she makes a living removing tattoos, Neville doesn’t want the availability of laser technology to change people’s mentality about getting inked in the first place. “Respect the process,” she cautions. “You should absolutely be of the understanding that it is on your body permanently.”