The pain is “excruciating.” It’s feels like white heat slapping her skin, it gives her blisters and is unlike anything she’s ever experienced. But for Stephanie Gorchynski, 32, the discomfort is worth it to get what she calls those two black “death angels” off her back.
Gorchynski, a pastry chef and owner of Sweet Revenge foods, has spent thousands of dollars and about 12 months removing what she describes as “bad art” from her body.
Hovering ominously on either side of a crest featuring flowers and a large S, the offending cherubs are part of an extensive art piece she got on her back during 2007 and 2008. They are, she says, “scary and creepy” — not the look she was going for.
In hindsight, she wishes she had been less impulsive about choosing her artist, but doesn’t regret the tattoo — just the death angels.
Jay McKay, 34, the owner of Unique Ink in Barrie, spends his days tattooing people. But for the past 3½ years, he’s been visiting a very different kind of ink parlour — one in the business of tattoo removal.
For McKay who started getting body art at 16, it’s a way of life, but when he woke up at 30 with 38 tattoos mixing Japanese, tribal and other designs, he realized he wanted to “clean up” — to make room for new art. He culled 14, including tats on his back, neck, legs, feet and face. The lengthy removal — it’s recommended that sessions are at least four and up to eight weeks apart — has cost him around $13,000, and he’s not done zapping old ink yet.
Though tattoo removal is painful, time consuming and expensive, it is a booming industry. The pool of people acquiring them continues to rise, at the same time increasing the group who want them removed — about a third of those who get a tattoo, according to the British Association of Dermatologists.
For some it’s about getting rid of a reminder of the past (two years after her divorce, actress Eva Longoria is still trying to remove Tony Parker-inspired ink); for others, it’s about growing up and changing priorities; still others want to create space for new designs.
U.S. industry research firm IBISWorld says revenue from tattoo removal has increased at an average annual rate of 20.9 per cent over the past five years, to $65.6 million.
Removal is performed at small business concentrating solely on tattoos, medical laser clinics and cosmetic clinics offering it alongside Botox and hair removal.
The most common removal technology is a Q-switched laser that targets the tattoo with pulses of highly concentrated light, breaking the ink into tiny fragments. A session costs $100 to $350, depending on how large the area.
Despite growing competition, the cost is unlikely to diminish: Those lasers cost $100,000 to $130,000, with annual maintenance as much as $10,000.
Yet despite the sophistication of the equipment and the fact that the procedure has health and safety implications, people who carry out tattoo removal are not regulated as medical professionals under the Regulated Health Professions Act, simply because they are classified as aestheticians, not plastic surgeons.
Thus, Health Ontario can carry out inspections to ensure the machines are safe and clean, but nobody regulates the actual use of the lasers (the same ones that are used for hair or vein removal), operated by people with a variety of professional backgrounds.
In the U.S., most states have regulated the sector. In some jurisdictions, laser technicians require a physician to be on call; in others only physicians can operate the machines.
Shane Bolton, the founder and operator of Fading Fast, a tattoo-removal business, says more robust oversight is needed in Canada — not just for removal but for the burgeoning tattoo business as well. Both application and removal now have their share of poor technicians. He says he’s had people come to him a day after getting a tattoo to have it removed. And he has seen individuals who have been scarred by poor removal techniques.
A former tattoo artist, about five years ago Bolton he spotted a sound business opportunity as more and more people were having tattoos removed. Today, he operates from premises in Newmarket, Cambridge and Toronto, and his customers come from as far afield as Montreal, Chicago and New York.
His customers range from 18 to 65, but are primarily people in their late 20s to early 40s.
“Very few people are doing this properly. It is a highly skilled job and you have to know about tattoos as well as how to use the machine properly,” he says. “There is a lot of theory training when you buy the laser, but no real practical training so it’s about finding out for yourself.
“Even when I was getting trained (mandatory when you buy the laser equipment) I was asking questions they didn’t know how to answer.”
He uses a laser and a cooling machine to ease the discomfort. “It is still painful, I am not saying there won’t be any, but the cooling machine really helps. Some people use freezing needles but what I use — basically a $15,000 air conditioner — means nothing else is added to the skin and it’s not just numbing it against the pain.”
“I’d say to people anyone doing your nails probably shouldn’t be removing your tattoo.”
Gorchynski initially had a bad experience at a cosmetic clinic. “Progress (in removing the tattoo) was very limited and it didn’t seem like anything was happening. I went three times before I decided to try somewhere else. The technician just didn’t seem to know what he was doing at all,” she says.
She found Precision Laser Tattoo Removal advertising through Groupon and decided to give it a try. She hasn’t looked back, despite the pain, which for her was worse than actually getting the tattoo.
“I almost look forward to going because the atmosphere is so relaxing and friendly and they really know what they are doing.”
For McKay, who goes to Bolton’s Fading Fast, removing some of his tattoos removed has prompted him to counsel people who come to him for a permanent body marking.
“If someone wants to get their girlfriend’s name I would strongly advise against it, but if it’s their kids then that’s different as they will always be their kid.”
For his part, he says he doesn’t necessarily regret any of the tattoos he got when he was young, but concedes he likely won’t replace some of them, especially the one on his face.
“I’m older now, so probably not.”