A tattoo’s permanence was once considered part of the package, equally a source of frisson-like appeal and finger-wagging peril. But as tattoo removal grows more commonplace, many of those associations are now in flux.
In recent years the laser removal process – which breaks up the ink into smaller fragments that can be spirited away by the body – has been embraced by many of the celebrities who helped cement body art’s 2010s pop culture ascendancy, from the Kardashians to the Osbournes. Recently, Saturday Night Live’s Pete Davidson set about scrubbing his famously inked frame – which spans the gamut from stoner gags to famous exes – in order to pursue more film roles.
“I didn’t think that they would put me in stuff – movie business or anything,” Davidson told Seth Meyers in May. “Now I’m burning them off, but burning them off is worse than getting them … before [the doctor] goes to laser each tattoo, you have to hear him announce what the tattoo is to make sure if you want to keep it or not. All of a sudden I’ll just hear, ‘are we keeping the Stewie Griffin smoking a blunt?’”
Closer to home, the AFLW star Tayla Harris had a dolphin on her ankle removed in 2019, while the former Love Island contestant and influencer Vanessa Sierra vlogged about getting her sleeve zapped in January.
“I think the main thing is, people change,” says Amanda McKinnon, who founded Adelaide-based removal studio LaserTat nine years ago. “What they perhaps got when they were 18, sometimes even younger, doesn’t necessarily suit them now.”
But some of the reasons McKinnon’s clients seek treatment are far more harrowing. “I had a lady come in quite a few years ago in a situation where her partner made her tattoo something fairly offensive on her body. She was very concerned about her kids growing up and being able to read what was tattooed on her – it just didn’t sit right with me that there was nothing that she could do about it.”
That woman’s story inspired McKinnon to establish the Fresh Start program, which invites prospective clients with difficult circumstances to apply for fee-free treatment.
Since the program started in 2019 McKinnon’s team have worked with a wide variety of participants, from the formerly incarcerated to survivors of child abuse and breast cancer (“They get tattooed dots on them when they have radiation therapy, and once they’re free of cancer they still have those tattoos,” she says). “It was like opening a can of worms reading some of the stories, it was quite confronting,” she says of the applications. “But that’s what it’s there for.”
“One particular client was a survivor of sexual assault. She got a tattoo to move forward with her life, to show that she did move forward, [but] now she’s realised it’s a constant reminder of that traumatic experience. So having that taken off her body is a fairly important process in that healing.”
But seeking to have a tattoo removed or altered needn’t always be tied up in embarrassment, trauma, or regret. For many tattoo artists, removal is simply another welcome tool in an industry – and broader conversation – that continues to evolve.
The tattoo artist Chiranjika Grasby, 24, who specialises in stick and poke work under the name Poko Ono, has an estimated 80 pieces, and describes their “collection” as akin to hanging artworks on a wall.
“I didn’t at first think I would get any laser,” Grasby, who uses they/them pronouns, says. “Over the past few years my mind’s really switched, especially as I’ve started getting it myself.”
In late 2019 Grasby began treatment at McKinnon’s clinic to remove the first tattoo they had done by a professional artist. “I kept looking at it in the context of my collection overall; the placement vibe is just so slightly off that it bothers my eyes, and feels like it’s competing with the collection. So I’m just going to remove it, and get something that jigsaws in a little bit nicer.”
Another piece Grasby is having removed was done at home by a friend – a reminder that the barriers to removing a tattoo often remain higher than getting one in the first place.
“It is an expensive process – a lot more expensive than getting a tattoo, and some people might not have paid for that tattoo in the beginning,” McKinnon says. “So it can be a bitter pill to swallow sometimes, but it is a process as well – usually about six to 12 treatments for a complete removal, and that can take anywhere between one to two years.”
While McKinnon hopes to set up Fresh Start as a not-for-profit to make treatment more financially accessible, others are exploring novel ways to help clients push past the pain barrier. In Sydney, the recently opened Next Level Tattoo Removal Clinic promises to combine tattoo removal with the experience of the ‘holistic wellness’ industry.
“I thought it would be nice to build a clinic that has this really lux, high end, soft like a day spa, relaxing vibe to it,” founder Kylie Hayden says of her clinic, where clients can expect a complimentary glass of “infused water” or Grey Goose vodka upon arrival, liberal amounts of numbing cream, and a “collagen elixir” after treatment.
Like Davidson, Hayden says many of her clients are aspiring actors or Nida students wary of putting themselves at a disadvantage in the casting process.
Grasby talks to their clients about their work, and what might be acceptable, before any ink meets skin. “Most of the people who are very conscious of hiding tattoos, or maybe not having them at all, are people who work in very, very corporate formal professional environments,” they say. “Or, interestingly enough, people who work in fast food and supermarkets. It’s quite funny to think that they’re at … opposite ends.”
Between those extremes lies a vast spectrum of industries where tattoos are more readily accepted. “I get a lot of teachers – my second highest demographic is probably nurses or nursing students,” Grasby says. It’s one sign that the stigmas around tattoos, and perhaps the reasons for altering them, are changing too.
“I don’t think it’s always about regret either,” McKinnon reflects. “Sometimes people are cursed with that word ‘regret’; we’re told by our parents all the time ‘you’re going to regret that tattoo when you’re older’. We certainly steer away from that word, because it’s not always about that. People that are coming in and having tattoos removed aren’t always feeling that regret – they’re just wanting a change.”
Grasby agrees: “If I hit 30 or 40 and don’t like it any more, I shouldn’t be forced to live with it. I’m going to change as a person, why can’t my body continue changing with me? You can look at a piece and let it grow by being covered with something new or completely disappear and have clean skin again. There’s no shame in that.
“It’s part of living with your body.”