There's a tattoo studio near my office called Skin Thrills. A sign out front advertises their special offers — $50 roses on Tuesdays, or $25 dollar kanji letters on Thursdays. As I drove past the sign last week, work was quickly driven out of my mind and replaced with two thoughts. One: I wonder what the kanji for "shrimp tempura" looks like. And two: I live in a tattoo-saturated nation.
What used to be a rite of passage reserved for sailors and circus troupes has exploded in the past half century, making the sharp transition from subversive act to fashion statement. In the over-forty crowd, men still bear most of the ink. For the generation to which I belong, neither gender, nor skin tone, nor profession of choice (come to think of it, a Caduceus tat would be pretty awesome) is off limits. I should know. I'm a member of tatted-up, twenty-n-change masses. But, in addition to belonging to that every-increasing minority, I also belong to a smaller rank and file that will undoubtedly come to grow along side the multiplying rates of tattoo-getters in my age bracket. I am, I admit with some ambivalence, one of the thousands of Americans who is undergoing the process of tattoo removal this year.
"Everyone thinks they're hot shit when they're sixteen, right?" I quipped to the laser technician the first time he examined the offending ink. I tried very hard to sound calm and nonchalant. I'm sure I failed. Hey, it's not easy to crack wise when you're half naked in the presence of a complete stranger, especially not when they ask you about the origin of the tattoo you're removing. Just two months before the start of my senior year of high school, my best friend du jour and I skipped merrily into the local tattoo parlor in downstate New York on a whim. We then proceeded to request –- wait for it, now –- matching tattoos. Matching. And it gets worse: we picked them off of a display on the wall. The cherry on top of this cupcake of a scenario? Our tattoo of choice actually was a pair of cherries. The end result was anything but badass. But it was bad. And it was definitely on my ass.
Long after my banal compatibility with the ink-bound BFF had dissolved (in retrospect, I guess a mutual fondness for Sour Cream n' Onion Pringles isn't the strongest of starting points for a lasting friendship), I was left with an indelible, faux-rockabilly stamp on my rump and a Thursday afternoon appointment with Danny Fowler, tattoo legend turned tattoo removal expert. The technology of choice, he assured me, had developed a sophisticated sensitivity to a wide range of colored inks in recent years. I am compelled to note that an increase in efficacy fails to correlate with a greater measure of delicacy.
Never mind the gnawing sensation of a needle plunging umpteen strokes-per-second into your skin as it's dragged across a transferred outline. The Q-switched laser –- the sexy younger brother of the tattoo removal lasers of yester-decade –- pulses continuous waves that shatter the pigment of a tattoo, rendering it intracellular fodder for the body's lymphatic system to clean up. In layman's terms, that means it hurts enough to make you want to curse the guy wielding it and your sweet grandmother in a single, rowdy breath.
By my third session Danny and I were on familiar enough terms to swap small talk while I waited on the exam chair in the clinic portion of his tattoo studio. Except for the framed prints of Yakuza sleeves on the walls and the rows of fluorescent tattoo ink lining the countertop, the space could be mistaken for an upscale dermatologist's office. After snapping on gloves and laying out bandages and gauze on a surgical tray, Danny flicked the "on" switch of his $75,000 toy and fished around in a drawer for protective eyewear: red-lensed glasses that offset the laser's penchant for retinal damage. After pausing to hand me a pair of the Bono-esque shades and a disposable sheet to tuck around the edges of my black Hanes underpants ("Wouldn't want to set your drawers on fire, darlin'."), he took a seat to my left. Deep breath in. Ready? Aim. Fire down below.
In my complete history of injury, laden as it is with muscle tears, surgeries, and novocaine-free orthodontia, never had I ever felt such pain. Electric punishment tore through my skin, ripping moisture from my mouth and speech from my tongue. My eyes didn't swim out of focus. I just couldn't detach them from the hardwood floor's grain. Towards the end of what felt like a half hour under the laser (it had only been three minutes) my eyeteeth felt like they might curl backwards and submerge themselves in my gums. It might have been a welcome distraction from the epidermal discomfort.
When Danny turned off the machine the faintest glimmer of a thought whispered in the back of my incapacitated throat: I am lucky as all hell to be able to afford this. For ex-cons and former gang members who turn over a new leaf, there are a handful of programs in place that help rid bodies of unwanted adornment. For the foolhardy but unconvicted among the inked legions, our impulsiveness, if corrected, costs us more than a few embarrassing bikini shots on Facebook -– and far more than most twenty-somethings can afford. Tattoo removal isn't just a pain in the ass (or shoulder, or ankle, or inner thigh). It hurts the wallet something awful.
Sessions run from a modest $150 per shot to upwards of $1000 in a single run depending on nebulous factors such as where you go for treatment, the kind and color of ink in the tattoo, and the relative size of the work. And it's not like this is a speedy process. According to Danny, a tattoo of "medium" size (read: about the size of the back of your hand) takes an average of eight sessions to remove, with plenty of space in between for healing. And that's presuming that the tattoo can actually be erased completely.
My own jaunts with the Q-switched laser are funded by a chunk of change I inherited from my grandmother. A life-long penny pincher, Gran asked that I used the funds in a way she was rarely capable of using hers: slightly frivolously, and with an eye towards self-improvement. But, even with the bequeathed dough, the costs have to be offset somehow (no to cable and red meat, yes to off-brand bandages and regular dinners of rice and beans).
Regardless of what you think about getting or getting rid of tattoos, neither practice is going anywhere in a hurry. In a study conducted by Northwestern University in 2006, nearly a quarter of the participants reported having a tattoo. Of that demographic, seventeen percent were thinking of having it removed. Even with the Dow-Jones in the dumps, Danny says he still sees upwards of eight or nine customers per week for removals. And, dire as the economy is, there may be some instances in which one can't afford not to have a tattoo removed: "It used to be that an employer had to be a little more forgiving of an employee's offbeat appearance." Danny notes. "Now, everyone needs a job and that same employer can choose between the dude with the tats on his knuckles and the clean-cut guy with identical qualifications."
I'll be honest: In the time that passes between yanking on a pair of beige Spanx post treatment (they cut down on the swelling, okay?) and writing a check to Laser Tattoo Removal of Virginia, the list of "cons" seems to beat the "pros" by a landslide. Unless I decide to make a radical change in my choice of career, the cherries aren't going to cost me a job any time soon. The process hurts. It's money I could put to more ostensibly pragmatic uses. It's only four square inches, for God's sake. Three sessions after the fact, the cherries-of-the-tush are only the slightest bit closer to matching the lily-of-the-valley hue of my ass. And did I mention that it hurts?
When I asked Danny about the significance of his many, many tattoos, I got an explanation that mirrored my justification for removal. Except for a small tattoo on his stomach –- a hot pink lipstick kiss, done by the artist under whom he apprenticed –- Danny tattooed for ten solid years before he had his first serious piece of work done. Before he was willing to alter his exterior, he said, "I had to dream up a story of my inner being and somehow transmute that into an image…that takes more time and thought than picking something pretty off a poster, but it pays off in the long run." In comparison to bodies of work like Danny's, the cherries I picked six years ago are void of meaning beyond their anecdotal charm. I got the tattoo for the sake of getting a tattoo, and was left with something that was just that –- an image fixed in flesh –- and nothing more.
When I drive past the sign outside of Skin Thrills, I wonder how many others are in the same boat. I wonder how few will have the means to rectify their mistakes, should they wish to do so. Despite my posterior regrets, I'm not anti-tattoo in the least. Tattoos, besides serving as a redoubtable vessel for self-expression (or perhaps because they serve such a function), hold their wearer to a degree of openness and honesty. They present a philosophy of self that one must either ‘fess up to, or, hopefully, live up to. I have other tattoos that I adore just as much as I loathe the butt-fruit precisely because they do the latter. And the cherries? Well, they're getting exactly what they deserve.
Gemma de Choisy lives and writes in Roanoke, Virginia. Her butt feels a lot better, thanks.
Image via Andy Nortnik/Shutterstock.com