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Bad body art and regrets in a tattoo removal clinic

‘I hated it the minute it was finished’: bad body art and regrets in a tattoo removal clinic

From Brexit written across a bum to the name of an ex, some tattoos are mistakes that their owners are desperate to erase. But is costly laser treatment worth the pain?

At the temple of regret, you can have your mistakes burned away by a smiling practitioner if you are willing to pay a hefty fee. I’m at an unremarkable office block near Monument tube station in central London, watching the remorseful have their body art erased at Pulse Light Clinic, which offers state-of-the-art tattoo removal using laser technology. As penitents of all ages, walks of life and ethnicities walk through the door, one thing becomes clear: there are a lot of terrible tattoos out there.

In a spotless treatment room beside a £6,500 tattoo-removing PicoSure laser machine, senior practitioner Cherry Brierly is recounting her clients’ stories. “I had one lovely guy,” she says brightly. “He had a tattoo on his head. He was in his 60s, newly divorced. He came in and said: ‘It’s not me anymore. I need to find a new wife.’” The tattoo said: “Made in London”. It disappeared in a single session.

Probably the worst tattoos Brierly has removed were the terrible jokes: “‘Tupac’ written across the stomach,” she says. “Or ‘Brexit’ on the bum. Or camel drawn on a toe.” As a tattoo remover, Brierly has a direct line into the shifting vagaries of the human psyche. “One guy did practically his whole body,” she says. “Everything was tattooed. He’d gotten divorced and was a Muslim.” As some Muslims believe tattoos are forbidden, she thinks they were his way of declaring he didn’t want to be a Muslim anymore. There was just one problem: he rediscovered his faith. “All that was within six months.”

The most common tattoos Brierly removes, however, are tribal designs out of favour since their 90s heyday. “Tramp stamps” – a tattoo on a woman’s lower back – are also routinely sandblasted away, as are dolphins, another relic of the 90s. (Samantha Cameron has one on her foot.) More recently, Brierly has had clients coming in to have full sleeves removed, as the 2010s trend beloved of footballers and social media influencers burns itself out. And then, of course, there are names – heartbreak is always good business for the tattoo-removal trade.

bad body art and regrets in a tattoo removal clinic

“We’re impulsive,” says Brierly when asked what she has learned from her career. “Very impulsive.”

In an adjacent treatment room, Candice Smith is having a youthful indiscretion scrubbed clean. “I remember I was walking down the street,” says the 30-year-old social work student, from east London, “and someone said: ‘She’s got a strawberry on her leg!’ I think that did it for me.”

Rene Cazzetta works on Roy Sword’s arrow tattoo.

Rene Cazzetta works on Roy Sword’s arrow tattoo. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian
I contemplate the offending soft fruit, on Smith’s left calf. It is the size of a baby’s head, badly rendered in wobbly fluorescent pink. In all honesty, she’s making the right call. “It was only a small tattoo I wanted,” Smith sighs. “But it ended up being massive.” Smith can’t even remember why she got the strawberry tattoo – she is not particularly keen on the fruit but was 18 at the time, a wannabe Camden scene kid with tattoos, a face full of piercings, and an extreme haircut. “The regret kicked in as I got older,” Smith says.

She’s having it lasered off so that she no longer has to worry about covering it when the weather gets warm. “Over the years,” she says, “it has just ruined every summer. I’m forever trying to cover it with the perfect length dress, and midi dresses aren’t my thing. Or culottes, which I don’t really like, but I wear because they cover the tattoo.”

She is halfway through a course of six treatments, at a cost of £600, and her tattoo is much faded, although still visible. (Most tattoos take a number of sessions to be removed.) “I was shocked at how much it costs,” Smith says. “But I felt like getting this removed was very worth it for me.” Astonishingly, despite all this, she doesn’t regret the tattoo and says it serves as a learning curve for her children.

Besides her, practitioner Rene Cazzetta is programming the laser to the correct setting. Cazzetta is a smiling and ebullient presence with more than a decade’s experience in laser tattoo removal. Tattoos like Smith’s, she explains, pose a challenge, because pink is especially tricky to remove. “The way tattoo removal works,” Cazzetta says, “is that the laser breaks down the ink into very small particles, and the blood that flows under the skin takes away the ink.” The laser works on all skin types with black ink, but it can cause pigmentation – a permanent change to the color of the skin – with colored tattoos on black skin.

Pink, yellow, and white are the most stubborn colors to remove; a practitioner may be able to fade them considerably, but a trace will remain. “They will go down in potency,” says Cazzatta, “and look like a bruise.” Some clients choose to cover up these faded remnants with a new tattoo; others are simply happy for their old ink to be barely visible. Visitors to the clinic are increasingly seeking to have their old tattoos removed and replaced by handiwork from artists more talented than the one who did the original tattoo.

With darker inks, the laser can have phenomenal results: the tattoo simply vanishes, as if it was never there. Cazzetta, who is heavily tattooed, knows this first-hand: she had an ex-boyfriend’s name tattooed on her body, then had it lasered off after the breakup. “I wanted to join all my clients with their experiences,” she says drily. “I felt as if I was missing out.” As her ex-boyfriend’s name was written in fine black ink, it was soon gone. “He was removed in the space of 12 weeks,” Cazzetta smiles.

bad body art and regrets in a tattoo removal clinic

Cazzetta works on Rotceh Perez’s tattoo.

Cazzetta works on Rotceh Perez’s tattoo. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian
She relishes the challenge of a tattoo like Smith’s strawberry. “Every tattoo can be extremely different from another,” she says. “Some tattooists put cheaper ink in, which is harder to remove. I’ve been doing this for a decade. And still, sometimes, when a client walks in, I think: ‘OK, how will I do this?’” It is a skilled job that requires practitioners to understand how best to program the laser for each pigment color and skin type. The most difficult tattoo she has ever removed? A beauty spot, “because the ink was pushed so deep into the skin”.

Smith has prepared for her session by rubbing anesthetic numbing cream onto the tattoo – a must for anyone contemplating laser tattoo removal. Without it, says Brierly, “the pain is horrific. I’m not going to lie. It’s a feeling you can’t describe. Like burning hot oil.” The cream “takes the pain off,” Brierly says. “You can sit through it. It’s fine. You can still feel it, but it’s nothing like what it would be without it. Without it, it’s horrible.”

The treatment itself takes less than two minutes: Cazzetta zaps the tattoo with a PicoWay laser, which flashes and looks a little like a soldering iron. (Practitioners switch between the two machines, the PicoSure and PicoWay, depending on the type of tattoo being removed.) “The only way I can explain it,” says Smith, “is that it feels like someone is stretching an elastic band and flicking you with it, without stopping.” At the end of the session, her strawberry is further faded: a berry stain, rather than a succulent fruit.

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What becomes clear, after only a few hours in the clinic, is that there are a lot of tattoos out there that are not what the client had in mind. “I knew what I wanted,” says the hairdresser Roy Sword, furiously. “I drew it, and I knew exactly where I wanted it placed.” But his tattooist – Sword practically spits when he says his name – did not get it right. “I’m annoyed I didn’t go back to the woman who did my other tattoos,” says the 45-year-old, from south London. “I should have just stuck with her.” Today, he is getting two arrows, tattooed on his wrists, removed – they are too big. “I hated them the minute they were finished,” he says.

Cazzetta’s next client is also someone who didn’t get the tattoo that she had in mind. “I had this whole idea of what I wanted it to look like,” says Gem Clay, a 26-year-old who works at a Lego Store and has traveled to London from Maidstone for the day. “But the artist didn’t do it like I thought it would be done. It was my first tattoo and I got really shy and said: ‘That’s fine, I love it.’” The tattoo in question is an orange maple leaf on her upper arm. Clay then added a rose to it, thinking she would like it more, but now she regrets that too and wants both removed.

This, says Brierly, is a common error. “My advice for anyone is that if you don’t like a tattoo, don’t cover it. Just get rid of it. Because it escalates. Some people get two cover-ups and then blackout over the top, and then take it off.” It’s best to treat a bad tattoo like a recipe that’s beyond saving: toss out the entire meal and start afresh, rather than trying to salvage it with additions.

bad body art and regrets in a tattoo removal clinic

Gem Clay with her unwanted tattoo of a rose.

Gem Clay with her unwanted tattoo of a rose. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian
Clay is in for a patch test, a legal prerequisite before she books an appointment. Cazzetta uses a laser on a portion of the tattoo, a small leaf. The laser bathes the room in a fluorescent gleam. The effect on the tattoo is remarkable: the green ink almost seems to foam, turning a cloudy yellow. Clay flinches as the laser drags the green ink to the surface of her skin: as it is her first session, she forgot to apply numbing cream. “It’s probably the most expensive tattoo I’ll ever have,” she says, “and I’m getting it removed.”

Britain’s unquenchable enthusiasm for tattoos means Pulse Light Clinic is, for now, doing a roaring trade. Unless the tattoo is particularly large, most people are in and out within 15 minutes. The laser process itself takes barely any time at all – seconds, in some cases – and afterward, the area is dressed in bandages, to prevent infection and promote healing.

Some people come to the clinic to have tattoos removed for professional reasons. Members of the army, cabin crew, and makeup artists at upmarket department stores are all forbidden from having tattoos on display. “Sometimes clients don’t like it,” says the 30-year-old Venezuelan model Rotceh Perez, “and they have to Photoshop it out. But I didn’t really like the tattoo enough to keep it.” She’s having an angel removed from her ribs: this is her fourth session, and only a few traces of ink remain.

Perez got the tattoo when she was 16. “I saw it as a kind of protection at the time,” she says. Her parents, predictably, were not thrilled. “Of course, they were mad,” she says. Now, she understands. “I will do the same with my children,” she says. “I’ll tell them: ‘Please don’t get a tattoo until you are at least 25. Then you can decide.’”

Not everyone has the excuse of youth. Although a global pandemic is not a bad second. “I had coronavirus at the time,” says Tom (not his real name), a 25-year-old PR worker from London who prefers to remain anonymous, for reasons which will become clear. “I was locked in the house with the woman I was seeing at the time. And it was just a spur-of-the-moment decision. I think I was suffering from being in the house for 12 days.”

Tom’s then-paramour tattooed the word ‘gravy’ on his left arm, using a needle. “I honestly can’t even remember the whole conversation [leading up to it],” says Tom. “I think it was more to do with the phrase ‘It’s all gravy. Then I realized afterward everyone will think I’m a northern boy – because northern boys love gravy.”

bad body art and regrets in a tattoo removal clinic

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Cazzetta zaps his gravy into oblivion. “You see that blanching?” she says casually. “It’s because the laser is hot and it hits the ink and makes the ink hot. And then the steam comes up and blanches the skin white. It will go down after a few minutes.” Tom slinks off into central London once more, gravy diluted.

Leaving the clinic, I can’t help but wish there was a PicoSure for all of our mistakes. Terrible boyfriend? Scald him away with a burst of concentrated light. Working in a career you hate? Laser those bosses into oblivion. Your regrets almost instantly fixed; vanished, as if they never happened. Until that day comes, tattoo removal is an option for our most visible errors of judgment. Just don’t forget the numbing cream.