Bad Ink: Tattoo Removal a Burgeoning Industry

As tattoos become increasingly adopted by the mainstream, the phenomenon of tattoo regret is also growing, leading to a booming industry in tattoo removal.
Bad Ink: Tattoo Removal a Burgeoning Industry
A man has a tattoo of his ex-wife's name removed from his chest at a clinic named What Were You Inking in Denver, Colorado, on April 18, 2014. (REUTERS/Rick Wilking)

In the summer months, when Canadians ditch their parkas in favour of shorts and swimsuits, tattoos seem to be everywhere you look.

But as tattoos become increasingly adopted by the mainstream, the phenomenon of tattoo regret is also growing, leading to a booming industry in tattoo removal.

Of the 22 percent of Canadians who have one or more tattoos, at least one in ten comes to regret it, according to a 2012 Ipsos Reid survey. Other figures suggest much higher levels of remorse. The British Journal of Dermatology published a letter estimating that over a third of people who get inked regret it later in life.

Certified laser tattoo removal specialist Shane Bolton was formerly a tattoo artist, but decided to switch to tattoo removal seven years ago. He has seen the industry explode in recent decades, in step with the increasing popularity of tattoos. 

“It’s definitely a growing industry,” says Bolton, owner of “Fading Fast,” a tattoo removal business with two locations in Ontario.

“So many people have gotten tattoos, and [are now getting them removed]. It’s different reasons for different people.” 

Some of the most common tattoos he removes are classic hallmarks from decades past, such as roses and dolphins, or more recent fads like tribal armbands and meaningless Chinese characters.

“It goes through trends, like ’this was the cool thing to do at this time.‘ And then they realize later on, ’Ah, maybe not,'” says Bolton.

According to a market analysis by laser technology company Astanza, the reasons that drive people to have their tattoos removed are many and varied. The most common include employment hindrance; the tattoo is the name of an ex-partner; the tattoo limits clothing options; parents don’t want their children to see their tattoo; the tattoo was done poorly or has faded; or the individual no longer identifies with its meaning. 

The American Society for Dermatologic Surgery estimates its practitioner-members did about 96,000 removal procedures in 2013—52 percent more than in 2012.

Revenue from tattoo removals has surged 440 percent over the last decade, according to U.S. industry research firm IBISWorld. Removals in the U.S. are growing in pace with growth in the tattoo industry, the firm says, and revenue for the industry overall is projected to be $3.4-billion this year.

That’s no surprise, as the average tattoo takes about 10 sessions to remove at $100 per session minimum, says Bolton. Tattoos cost exponentially more to remove than they do to put on, which is why many tattoo parlours are now offering removal services as well. 

More Regulation Needed

Bolton has concerns about a lack of regulation in the industry, however. While tattoo removal practitioners must get formal training and certification, they do not need to do an apprenticeship, which would require set hours of real-world, practical training. There is also a wide range in the quality of lasers used in the industry, he notes, and the results can vary a lot. 

Bolton has seen bad work result in permanent scars that can look worse than the tattoo itself.

“There’s cheap lasers out there—some will do damage, others are not going to do the job at all,” says Bolton, who has performed tattoo removal on himself in order to understand the process better. 

“It’s a matter of the person running the machine, as well as the machine itself.”

When considering getting a tattoo or having one removed, Bolton strongly advises people to do their research first as many disreputable establishments will have a matching reputation online. He also tells clients never to skimp on the price, because in the tattoo world, you get what you pay for. 

“You want to have this tattoo for the rest of your life, so get the right tattoo artist no matter how much it’s going to cost, no matter how far you have to go.”