I was less than fully sober when I got my tattoo. (Yeah, shocking). One of my younger brothers was in town for a visit, we had a lot to drink, and we decided it’d be cool to get replicas of a small moth-looking tattoo our dad has on his forearm.
“You’ll regret it,” Dad had said to us on the phone when we told him our plan. “You two are drunk.” I remember thinking he was right, and I’d regret the tattoo. But I also remember thinking, What’s the big deal? If I decide I don’t like it, I can have it removed.
Fast-forward six years, and I wanted the thing gone. It was small but conspicuous—a green glyph in the center of my arm that strangers couldn’t help asking about every time I wore a short-sleeved shirt. Even when people didn’t inquire, the tattoo made me feel self-conscious.
I started looking into tattoo removal and was hit with a couple big and unwelcome surprises. The first was the cost. I’d assumed having it lasered off was a one-visit procedure, and would cost a couple hundred bucks—at most. Wrong. I called four different removal studios, and each charged per session and per square-inch of inked skin. Even for my little tattoo, each lasering would cost me up to $125, and I would need a minimum of four sessions for complete removal. Considering the tattoo itself cost me $50 and took about 10 minutes to ink, this was hard to swallow.
But I had my mind set, so I enlisted the help of Tataway, a company with removal studios in Philly, New York, and Boston.
“Your body really does the work,” explained Marissa Runyon, the removal technician who gave me the low-down during my initial consultation. “Our laser is just breaking up the ink so your body’s lymphatic system can dispose of it.” She said the different laser sessions would have different effects on the tattoo. After some it would fade a lot, but after others it might be hard to tell much had happened. “If you had a really big, multicolored tattoo, that could take 10 to 15 sessions,” she said.
She also showed me the studio’s two lasers, which looked a little like those big robotic arms auto manufacturers use to assemble car frames. One of the lasers, which she called the “PicoSure,” was newer and designed specifically for most colored inks, including the green used for my tattoo. “A few years ago we might not have been able to remove a tattoo like yours,” she said. The second laser—the “RevLit”—was for black and red inks. (Had I been smart enough to get a black tattoo, each session with this older laser would have cost just $60.)
A few weeks later I was back at Tataway for my first treatment session. A different technician, Nicole, led me back to the laser room and had me sit on a doctor’s office-style table while holding an ice pack against my tattoo. “That will help numb it,” she told me.
“Is this going to hurt?” I asked. Getting the tattoo itself hadn’t been very painful, so I’d assumed the laser removal would hurt even less—or not at all.
“It depends,” Nicole said. “On your arm shouldn’t be too bad, but we can take breaks if you need them.”
Breaks? Uh, okay.
While my arm was getting good and numb from the ice pack, Nicole charged up the laser and handed me a pair of what looked like BluBlocker sunglasses. “They’re to protect your eyes from the laser,” she said. She donned a pair herself, grabbed the stylus at the end of the laser’s articulating arm, and went to work.
It definitely hurt more than getting the tattoo, but it was tolerable.
Moving quickly, she traced the outline of my tattoo with the laser’s red beam. As the beam moved over my skin, I could hear small popping noises, as though someone were throwing wet ingredients into a hot pan. It definitely hurt more than getting the tattoo, but it was tolerable. (I could understand how some people with larger tattoos in more sensitive areas would need breaks.)
She finished in less than a minute, and immediately a white crust formed on top of my skin where the laser had touched it. As Nicole smeared my arm with petroleum jelly and wrapped it with a gauzy bandage, she said, “There’s going to be some swelling and blistering.”
She gave me a little pouch that contained some kind of gel and a little pin. “Put the ointment on if the itching or irritation is really bad, and use the pin to pop blisters that are dime-sized or larger,” she instructed. She also told me to keep my tattoo out of sunlight, and not to smoke. (By messing with your immune system and circulation, smoking can hamper the tattoo removal process, according to research in the Archives of Dermatology.)
Two hours later, I unwrapped the bandage. My skin was red and singed-looking, and a lump had formed beneath my tattoo. It looked as though someone had tucked half a golf ball under my skin. “Ugh, what’s in there?” my wife asked, looking disgusted.
The next morning the lump was mostly gone, but small blisters had started to form. None was dime-sized, so I left them alone. Tataway was nice enough to send me a follow up text that day, and they suggested I text back a picture if I was worried about anything. I did just to be sure all was well, and they told me my skin’s reaction was totally normal.
After four weeks—the amount of time I had to wait between sessions while my skin healed—I returned for my second treatment. My tattoo was noticeably lighter, and had also changed color from green to gray. “Yeah, looking good,” Nicole said before zapping me a second time.
There was a lot less swelling and blistering after this second session, but also a lot less fading. “That’s normal,” Nicole told me when I arrived for my third session. “Sometimes you’ll see a lot of fading, and sometimes you won’t.”
But when I came back for my fourth session and showed her how my tattoo had again hardly faded, Nicole said we’d be switching to the “pull-back” technique, which would intensify the laser’s power. She told me it might result in “little pinpricks” of blood, and there’d be more scabbing and swelling afterword. “This is exciting,” she said ominously as she slipped on her protective glasses. “It’s like fireworks.”
The scary-sounding “pull-back” technique actually didn’t hurt any more than the other sessions. But, as promised, it did produce some small sparks and flashes on my skin. Afterward, when Nicole spread on the petroleum jelly, my forearm looked a little like Rocky Balboa’s cheek after Ivan Drago had pulverized it. “You’ll have to wait eight weeks this time before coming back in,” she said.
By the time I was back in Tataway’s studio nine weeks later, my tattoo was much lighter. But it would take another two sessions before my little moth had finally flitted away into oblivion.
So to recap, the removal process for my dinky tattoo ended up requiring nine months, six laser sessions, $750, a little pain and blistering, and a summer spent wearing a bandage on my arm to protect my wounded tattoo from the sun.
Lesson learned. Don’t drink and ink.