I have seen a lot of shitty tattoos in my life: a friend of a friend of mine in high school had a blurry script tattoo of "c@rl" on their hip. They told me they had got it while they were drunk—they didn't know a single "Carl" in their life, but they liked the @ sign. I too have a shitty tattoo: my left arm has a signature from LA rapper Dumbfoundead that simply reads "Dumb." Thankfully, most can't understand what it says due to the graffiti art style but to me, the meaning will always hold a tinge of regret mixed with a pool of teenage sentimentality.
If most people could take back their bad ink with ease, they probably would, but the reality of the matter is that there is no easy way to get rid of tattoos. In the past, skin grafts and cryogenics were used to replace and freeze tattooed skin off. These days, whether people want to cover up ex's names with a flaming phoenix (not like this terrible thing on Ben Affleck's back) or get rid of that shitty portrait of their childhood dog, laser removal is the way to go. That's where Faith Kapalko, a laser technician in Toronto, comes in.
"The kiss of death for a relationship is getting a tattoo with your significant other, no matter what it is," she told me. "Even if it's not their name, getting a tattoo with someone [you're seeing] kills it. Most tattoo shops won't even do it anymore. It's pretty much an immediate end to the relationship, and then you have to come and get it removed."
Kapalko has been working at Tattoo Removal Canada for around two years, and in that time, she's borne witness to the worst decisions in many people's lives. Ugly sleeves, random flash pieces people got while high, stick-and-pokes, religious icons, and unrecognizable portraits. Most of these mistakes happen while people are young and dumb, but many just happen at what Kapalko describes as a "weird point in their life."
Daniel Brennan, 25, is a freemason, and because of that, he got a very large and very unappealing all-seeing-eye on his shoulder when he was 19. He now has a handful of tattoos on his body, but this is the only one he says he regrets, mostly because he got it from a buddy (who he notes was "not a professional") while sitting in his living room.
"I definitely regret this one, I can't really think of a good reason for having it anymore," he said. "It was a total miscalculation on my part. Definitely something I wish I could time travel to fix."
The client Kapalko was working on when I visited the shop is actually her wife Rebecca—a piercing artist in the city who is a connoisseur of body modifications and tattoos, not all of them welcome on her body anymore. She grew up in Moncton, NB, and started working at a tattoo shop at the age of 17. Completely free of ink at that time, she told me that she got that tattoo she's getting removed today—a medieval gauntlet that stretches onto her hand—because she wanted to fit in with the veterans at the shop.
"Tattoos have evolved so, so much. People tried to jumble too many styles at once and no one really specialized in anything back then. This piece is just sub-par," she told me.
"It's not the content of the tattoos, I just wish it was executed differently. Back then, I wish I would have had the knowledge to check portfolios, I wish I would have been more educated, I think I just wish I would have taken my time and found the right people to the job. I don't think I would have got anything removed in that case."
The removal procedure is an effective but painful process. A laser, built to specifically target tattoo ink (and not the actual tissue around it), causes the pigment to heat up and break down into a form that the body can absorb. The result is a bruised, blistery mess—the ink, as Faith tells, essentially "pops like popcorn" and causes a disgusting effect on the skin that can only be likened to a terrible sunburn or (what looks like) a flesh-eating disease.
Every session will take a few weeks until fully healed, but most tattoos, depending on the density of ink and colour, take anywhere from four to 12 sessions before disappearing fully. Despite her tattoo looking only slightly faded, Rebecca has already had two sessions under Faith's laser. Rebecca tells me she's not as nervous as she was the first time, where, despite having a number of of ridiculously painful piercings, she tells me her palms were sweating and her heart was beating out of her chest.
Within minutes of talking, we were in the room with the machine fired up. As soon as it hit Rebecca's skin, the laser made a crackling sound—like gigantic pop rocks were exploding out of her dermal. Seconds later, the stomach-turning smell of burning flesh had made its way to my nostrils.
Not everybody can deal with the pain. Faith tells me that, on a number of occasions, clients have quit only a minute or two into their procedure with tears in their eyes. The thought of having to not only face excruciating pain for 30-45 minutes, but also come back and do that up to a dozen times over the course of a year, is enough to turn everyone but the most desperate and patient away from getting their bad tattoos taken care of.
There's also the cost factor. Faith's clinic charges $120 per session, with a discount for people who buy in bundles and commit to the full removal. I asked Faith how much it would cost for me to get my tattoo removed totally, and the number was kind of shocking. A medium-sized dark tattoo can cost thousands to get rid of, and full removal from my skin would be $2,000.
Faith emphasized that everybody's body is different and that some are more efficient at clearing out the ink. With that said, she noted that even the smallest fuck-ups can take a serious amount of cash to remedy. And with that, she made a point to drive home how important it is to think before you ink.
"The best thing I recommend to people who want to get a tattoo is simple: take the image and put it right beside your bed for a month. If you can wake up, see it every morning, and not be bothered by it, then you're probably OK. That's not a case for a lot of these removals."
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