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The Profiles Issue

The Profitable Economics of the Tattoo Removal Industry

Lasering ink off skin is now a booming business.

by Justin Glawe
Jun 4 2014, 11:50am

Photo courtesy of Phil Marandola

Across the United States, as you read this, people are getting ink needled onto their skin. More than a fifth of all Americans have tattoos, there are tens of thousands of tattoo parlors around the country, and the industry brings in billions in annual revenue. Many of the millions of pieces of body art adorning American flesh are no doubt timeless works demonstrating a tattooist’s mastery of the form, but many more are sloppily executed, ill-conceived, embarrassing in the sober light of morning, or faded and worn beyond recognition. So while the tattoo business continues to grow at a steady clip, some people, like Phil Marandola, are counting on another growth industry: tattoo removal.

In late 2011, Marandola and his mother, Carmen Vanderheiden, founded a company called TatAway that, their website says, is there to help the “estimated 9 million people in the United States with tattoo regret.” Their main piece of equipment is a $275,000 laser made by the company CynoSure called the PicoSure, the most recent great leap forward in the tattoo removal field. Unlike “traditional nanosecond lasers” that “predominately rely on photothermal action, delivering heat to the pigment and surrounding tissue,” the manufacturer’s website says. “PicoSure takes advantage of PressureWave Technology to shatter the target ink into tiny particles that are easily eliminated by the body.” What that means in English is the laser displaces the ink from the crevices on your skin, and your immune system does the rest.

“It’s fucking hard science,”Marandola told me.

It’s also good business. Boston-based TatAway was an earlier adopter of the PicoSure technology, which came on the market last year. “To the best of my knowledge we were the first in New England to have the Picosure,” Marandola said. The hugely expensive piece of equipment has been paid off, and Marandola told me TatAway just bought a PicoSure for their second shop, in New York City. And though you might imagine the tattoo removal industry to be run by judgmental prudes who wag their fingers at body art, Marandola is a showman and PR hound who got an ass-ugly tramp stamp of his company’s name tattooed on himself just so he can have it removed via the PicoSure later and prove how well the process works.

TatAway charges, on average, a few hundred dollars for each treatment, Marandola told me, though it can take multiple treatments to wipe someone’s skin clean. Different ink types, certain colors, tattoo size and skin pigment all play roles in determining how many treatments it will take to make your ex-girlfriend’s name disappear. Sometimes, it can take a year or more, depending on how big the tattoo is, what type of ink was used, and how healthy you are.

Though it can sound like a long process, the PicoSure and other next-generation tattoo removal technologies have made regrettable tats easier to get rid of. Lorenzo Kunze II, the owner of the International Laser Academy, an outfit that certifies people in tattoo removal, says the industry is booming, thanks in part to the procedures being much easier to perform.

“It’s safe to say that [tattoo removal] is definitely growing into a billion-dollar industry,” Kunze said. “When I first started 13 years ago we were charging $1,000 to $2,000 a treatment and there was still scarring.”

That makes it easier for Marandola to sell his services when he goes to tattoo shops looking to drum up business. “I tell [tattoo artists] I’ll give them free treatment with the old laser if they refer customers wanting work removed to us,” he said.

One artist who has such a relationship with Marandola is Chad Chase, the owner of Venom Ink in Sanford, Maine, who has been a tattoo artist for the last 18 of his 41 years. “I’d say it’s 50 percent bad art and 50 percent just a bad decision on the client’s part,” Chase said of tattoos that people regret and want removed.

Marandola, Chase, and Kunze all agree that shows like Miami Ink have increased the popularity of tattoos, but the quality of work hasn’t kept up with the number of studios opening across the country. Bad artists are bad artists, Chase told me. And people who don’t want to spend more than $100 on a piece probably aren’t going to splurge on having something removed to make way for better artwork.

“I think people have learned what better tattooing looks like, and now they want that old crap removed and new stuff put on,” said Chase.

Erasing tattoos isn’t merely about aesthetics, of course. Marandola has offered free removals to gang members trying to disassociate themselves from their former lives, as well as to breast cancer patients whose radiation treatments have left tattoo-like marks on their skin. He’s done his fair share of booking people looking to get rid of tramp stamps, too.

“There are infinite reasons to have a tattoo removed,” said Cynthia Finch, a tattoo artist who also has an agreement with Marandola and works at Elm City Tattoo in Keene, New Hampshire.

One of the biggest reasons according to Finch is the need to find a job. “I think that most people feel strongly enough about their tattoos that they acquire the mindset of, If they don't like my tattoos, fuck 'em,” she said.“I don’t think people take job security into consideration when getting tattooed.”

When someone realizes that the neckpiece that features a fire-breathing snake coming out of Drake’s head is standing in the way of gainful employment, they have to go through some red tape to get their tats removed, as many states require laser treatments to be carried out by licensed doctors. Oddly, Texas, that bastion of free-market idealism and the one place you’d think an unhinged opportunist with a Chinese laser in his trunk could operate, has one of the more restrictive medical boards, Kunze told me. But Massachusetts doesn’t have the same restrictions, which is why TatAway’s Boston shop can get referrals from all over New England.

“In all honesty, I would love to do lasering in my shop, but unfortunately the laws in Maine won’t allow it,” Chase told me. “I don’t have any plans of becoming a doctor any time soon, so I need these places.”

As much as Chase needs companies like Marandola’s, TatAway needs people to continue to get shitty tattoos that they’ll inevitably want lasered off by the fanciest machine money can buy. Obviously, this is a pretty solid business plan, and Marandola is savoring TatAway’s success while traveling back and forth from Boston to New York to managing his company’s two locations. But he insists there’s a higher purpose.

“We both have the same goal,” he said of TatAway and the tattoo artists the company works with. “Good art.”

Justin Glawe has several shitty tattoos and he likes them just the way they are. He documents crime and violence in his hometown, Peoria, Illinois.

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Volume 21 Issue 5