Throwback Thursday: This Is a Story of Ink, Lasers, and Regret$

This piece originally ran on December 12, 2012. Read old comments via the Wayback Machine.

Perhaps the saddest thing about my tattoo and its subsequent removal is that I wanted to get rid of it almost as soon as I got it. What’s more, my tattoo isn’t embarrassing or offensive: It’s not a swastika or an ex-girlfriend’s name or Kanye West’s face. It’s probably one of the most inoffensive images ever committed to ink.

It started almost two years ago when I first had the idea. I already had three tattoos I was fine with. The most recent one at that point was a large piece on my upper right arm in memory of my father. Totally fine. Never had any regrets. So far, so good.

Then two years ago, I got it in my head that I wanted a tattoo of a drum key somewhere on my body. I play the drums, and a drum key is the little metal tool that drummers use to loosen or tighten the lugs around a drumhead to tune the drum. Pretty cool, right? It’s a symbol of my lifelong passion for music, it’s a neat esoteric piece of hardware that represents the control over and knowledge of my instrument. Totally awesome, right? Why not get it permanently embossed on my skin? Maybe on my calf, where it will peek out unobtrusively while I ride my bike in warm months? Or even, better, why not the back of my forearm, where people will be able to witness my dedication to small chrome tools all the time and ask me, hey what is that thing anyway?

Here’s the first problem: This thought process took about two days.

I went from conception to execution in about a week. This is what’s known in the tattoo industry as a huge red flag (most tattoo parlors will be happy to tattoo a huge red flag on you instead of your original hastily conceived design). So, I went to the parlor where I got my previous tattoo, and boom, within about fifteen minutes (the guy was very fast), I had a drum key on my arm. The guy did a very good job, and I have no complaints with this work. (I wish to stress that all the artists I’ve ever had were very good at their jobs, and I find no fault with them. Tattoo artists can advise, and they can set boundaries about what they will or won’t put on your body and where, but ultimately it’s the client’s decision, and I imagine there is a very specific kind of pathos experienced by a tattoo artist applying a tattoo that he or she knows is a terrible idea.)

A few months went by. I couldn’t stop looking at my tattoo, and not because I thought it looked so great, but because I thought it looked so silly. A solitary drum key on my forearm? Really? Do contractors get Makita drills tattooed on themselves? Well, maybe some do, and it probably looks fine. But this little drum key was not sitting well with me. I’m not even a professional drummer. Phil Collins became a wildly successful drummer without ever immortalizing any component of his instruments in ink on his body (that I know of). Why did I have to?

I began concocting ways to improve the tattoo by adding to it. This is another red flag. As children, we learn that if we draw a picture, and we don’t like it, then adding a bunch of stuff to it usually doesn’t make it better  —  it just makes a mess. I should have remembered this warning.

And yet, again, I didn’t have anything particularly outrageous in mind. After a few weeks of deliberation (i.e. not enough) I ultimately settled on an array of musical notes, surrounding the drum key. Not just any notes, either, but the notation for a series of complex drum fills from a certain song by a certain progressive rock band. Pretty cool, huh? So cool that I’m too embarrassed to explain to people what song the notation is from when they ask. I just say, “oh, it’s some drum parts that I like.” Smooth.

Nevertheless, I went back into the parlor with my idea. The guy who’d done the previous tattoo was no longer there, but a very large, gentle man (tattoo parlors always seem to employ at least one very large, gentle man) embraced my idea, we scheduled the appointment, and a few weeks later my tattoo had grown to about twice its size, with an intricate series of musical notes blossoming across my forearm.

Those notes did look pretty cool, I will allow. But they didn’t quite jibe with the drum key at the center. Now I wished the drum key was gone, or that the notes and the key were somehow unified visually. They seemed to sit on slightly different planes, with different vanishing points  —  all complicated by the fact that they were laid across an uneven surface: my arm.

So, after a few months, I went back into the parlor. Are you starting to notice a pattern? This time, the large gentle man advised me to lay a gray background across the field surrounding the drum key and between the notes, a kind of background that would unify the image. He wasn’t wrong. It was a good idea. And he executed it well. But it left me unsatisfied. Not six months after I’d originally begun populating my forearm’s virgin territory, I wanted it wiped clean. And that’s when I started researching laser surgery.

Lasers were first applied to tattoos experimentally in the 1960s, but only within the past couple decades have they became commercially practical. If you’ll pardon my layman’s science: The ink particles in a tattoo stay there because they’re basically too large to go escape, but a laser breaks them up into fragments small enough to be carried away in the bloodstream. This is why laser removal takes so long: There are a lot of ink fragments to break up, and their liberation is a very slow process.

Over the past decade the “Q” laser has become the industry standard, and the technology has improved significantly even within the last few years. For a long time, Q lasers were predominantly the domain of dermatological clinics, but they’re increasingly common in tattoo parlors. I am fortunate enough to live near a parlor that offers laser removal; it was only the third parlor in the U.S. to do so. As tattoo parlors go, it’s pretty posh. It even has a koi pond. I sat staring at these lugubrious koi while I waited for my first laser treatment, back in March.

Oh yeah, spoiler alert: I decided to get my tattoo removed. I read online testimonials from people who said the pain and the patience and the money were worth the satisfaction of having your skin look like you want it to. These sentiments were echoed by Jenny, the laser technician who finally emerged and greeted me enthusiastically by the koi. Jenny looked at my tattoo, explained the removal process, had me sign a lengthy release form, and then estimated that the appointment would cost $160.

After taking a photo of my tattoo with her iPhone for before-and-after photos, Jenny led me to a small room in the back of the parlor just large enough for a repurposed massage table, a stool, and the laser equipment, which is about the size and shape of R2D2, if R2D2 was beige and instead of shooting lasers out of a gun in his head he shot them out of a small device attached to his face by a cord and wielded by a various heavily tattooed ambassadors of the Rebel Alliance.

Jenny instructed me to lay down on the table and we both put on sunglasses.

Before the appointment, I kept reading online that the pain of laser removal is similar to the repeated snapping of a rubber band against one’s skin, or hot bacon grease popping out of a pan. In my experience, it was like a rubber band made out of bacon grease being fired out of a rubber-band-bacon-grease cannon and slamming into my skin extremely hard and extremely quickly, in syncopated bursts. Which is to say, it hurt a lot. Whether it hurt more than getting a tattoo, I can’t say. It was a shorter, more intense pain, whereas getting a tattoo is a sustained kind of pain. I will say that the pain of removal doesn’t last nearly as long because the whole process takes only about ten minutes.

During the process, Jenny and I made small talk, a ritual I normally abhor, but I was grateful for any distraction from the pain. Jenny said the rate of laser removals she does has increased along with the number of people getting tattoos: she takes tattoos off people as fast as her colleagues put them on. She also practices on herself, removing some of the tattoos she’s received over the past decades. She seems to have developed a casual attitude toward it, talking about the removal and application of tattoos almost as if they’re hair styles  —  very painful, expensive hair styles.

After the appointment, the treated area stung like a sunburn, and I laid on my couch with an ice pack against my arm. The next day, some gnarly blisters started to appear above the larger inked portions of the tattoo. This is normal, and the blisters went away after a few days, replaced by scabs. A few days later, thousands of flecks and flakes of dead, gray and black skin began to fall away, all over my clothes and furniture and bedspread. But there are still several layers of live skin underneath, retaining the ink, to be assaulted by the next treatment. It’s a war of extremely slow attrition.

I have now had five removal treatments, spaced roughly six to eight weeks apart, administered by Jenny or, later, the other certified Q laser operator at the parlor, a tattoo artist named Kurt. The good news, for me, is that recently applied tattoos usually come out quicker than older ones, and black ink is removed more easily than colors. My tattoo is a bit lighter than it was initially, but otherwise it’s intact. The grayish background behind the key and the notes disappeared almost entirely during my first treatment, which was satisfying. But the rest of the tattoo is still there and completely discernible, just lighter and less defined, the careful lines of the sixteenth notes bleeding together into crude eighth notes.

During my most recent appointment, Kurt remembered that I’m a writer and asked me if I ever did any proofreading or copyediting. He told me he needed someone to look at the copy for a website he’s launching to accompany an expanded laser removal operation he’s going to open in a separate space. The laser business is booming, and Kurt needed a bigger space  —  and, he told me, suburban moms seeking to ablate their college indiscretions might be less squeamish about entering a more clinical space that’s not attached to a tattoo parlor, koi pond notwithstanding.

The bottom line is that Kurt offered to trade a free session in exchange for my copyediting services. Just like that, he saved me $160. (I still tipped him $20.) Which is great, but a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things. I have paid $160 for my previous four treatments, and unless Kurt has a lot of copyediting for me to do, will probably pay for my future removals. I will probably need at least four or five more sessions to completely remove my tattoo. The three sessions where the tattoo was applied cost a combined total of $450. My projected expense for removal is at least three times that.

In between treatments, once it heals, the tattoo looks relatively normal. But some friends with keen eyes noticed it looked a little different, and I had to sheepishly admit that I was having it removed. “But you just got it!” they’d exclaim, and, “I really liked it!” I would become more sheepish still. Somehow, I find telling people I’m having a tattoo removed more embarrassing than admitting that I don’t like it in the first place. I suppose that’s because it’s an admission of poor judgment, an unwise decision hastily made and just as hastily retracted. But it’s also admirable to admit a mistake and then go about rectifying it … right? And to take on a couple thousand dollars’ credit card debt in doing so?

Act in haste, repent at leisure.

Might I humbly suggest that, if you are considering a tattoo  —  then you might follow a few simple steps?

1.) Wait. Wait about six months  —  a year is better  —  and ask yourself every day of those six months: Do I want this tattoo? If the answer is no more than, say, zero percent of the time, you might want to wait a little longer. There’s an old adage I once heard applied to the subject of tattoos: Act in haste, repent at leisure.

2.) If you do get your tattoo and a time comes when, god forbid, you regret it, then you have options. I won’t hector you about how you should have waited longer, or planned things out better, or talked it over more with the artist, or anything like that. There’s no point in dwelling on those things now. But, there is hope. You can have it removed.

3.) At this point you should start a new savings account. The total amount of this fund should be anywhere from two to four times the original cost of the tattoo. Prices of tattoos and removals vary wildly, but one thing is for sure: the removal will almost certainly cost exponentially more than the tattoo itself.

The silver lining is that you don’t need all that money at once. Tattoo removal costs a lot of money, and it also takes a long time. Maybe you’ve probably heard all this before: Tattoo removal is prohibitively expensive, it’s more painful than the tattoo itself, it takes forever, it’s never completely removed, etc.

Well, yes and no. Removal is expensive, yes, but the prices have gone down even in the past few years. It is painful, but more painful than the tattoo itself? Pain is subjective. Yes, removal takes a long time, but if it takes a year to get rid of something you don’t have to look at for the rest of your life, it’s probably worth it. As for the final point: It depends on several factors, but with enough treatment, most tattoos can be completely removed.

Jake Mohan is a writer, teacher, and musician who lives in the Twin Cities. He is on Twitter.

Photo by Romina Farias on Unsplash.

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