More and More People Are Getting Tattoos, and More Are Removing Them Too - What Gives?

Tattoos are more popular than ever in the United States with the industry growing 13 percent annually between 2011 to 2016 and acquiring an unprecedented $1 billion in revenue last year.

But as more skin is decorated and adorned with ink, an increasing number are of people are choosing to have their tattoos lasered off. Whether it’s the sobering light of morning or the wisdom of age, many Americans are opting to wipe their skin clean of past decisions. The booming tattoo industry is giving rise to a new industry: tattoo removal.

Long recognized as symbols of countercultures, the sort of permanent choice only a prisoner or a punk would make, tattoos are now officially a feature of mainstream America. According to a Harris poll published in 2016, one in three adults have a tattoo—about 29 percent of Americans.

Unsurprisingly, tattoos remain most popular among young adults. Nearly half of people between 18 and 40 have a tattoo, while only 36 percent of Gen-X and 13 percent of Baby Boomers maintain any ink at all.

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Photo: Artem Markin/Shutterstock

As the time when tattoos were social taboos fades to distant memory, many experts predict that the trend will continue to grow. Over the last five years, the number of tattoo parlors in the United States has increased by over 12 percent and it won’t stop there. At this rate, a new establishment is opening up every day. A News Channel 10 article recently declared “Tattoo industry becoming second fastest industry in the country.”

So why have tattoos become so popular? Anne Villiquette, a professor at the University of Arkansas who studies the relationship between behavior and popular culture, says the increase in tattoos is a result of “living in a world that’s so fragmented and so chaotic.” Tattoos allow people “to create identities very easily,” she said.

Through tattoos, Joan Rivers can commemorate her Jewish identity with “6M” (for the number of people killed during the Holocaust), Meghan McCain can complicate her Republican identity and Miley Cyrus can appropriate someone else’s identity. But the rise in tattoos is not all identity aesthetics. There are tattoos that can relay medical information like blood sugar levels. Others can unlock your smartphone.

Nina Jablonski, a professor of anthropology at Penn State and author of Skin: A Natural History, says she has noticed a “new world language” of tattooing. She believes that tattoos will become more accessible to the older mainstream, but that there will also be more technological advances including tattoos that change under light conditions, implanted electric lights, or semi-permanent tattoos that slowly fade away.

Spread on social media and on television in shows like "Miami Ink," tattoos are uniquely self-promoting. “Because the end product is inherently visual, sites like Instagram and Pinterest are ready-made billboards,” Jesse Dorris writes for Slate. Consumers are more inclined to undergo the process of getting a tattoo and artists do not have to do as much to advertise their work.

Social media has also made the industry uniquely resistant to financial setbacks. Alex McWatt, founder of Three Kings Tattoo in New York, says that “people value their tattoo as a form of self-expression, so we’ve been fortunate to withstand economic downturns.”

With the emergence of tattoos in popular culture, many people still hope to preserve its subversive legacy. Sarah March, a British tattoo artist, has noticed a rise in stick-and-pokes, the do-it-yourself version involving a needle, some ink and a steady hand. “It’s kind of blowing up at the moment among people who want something that’s not so mainstream,” March told the Independent.

Others say that tattoos, even stick-and-pokes, no longer have the significance, subversive or otherwise, they once did because they can so easily be removed. Laser treatments and other cosmetic procedures have reduced the cost and complications of tattoo removal.

According to a Harris poll, 23 percent of people with a tattoo regret getting it. In an interview with Vice, Kirby Farrell, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts who specializes in the anthropology of self-esteem and identity, explains that “tattoos are cultural expressions of heroism or identity” but can become “unbelievably suffocating cliches.” They have the illusion of giving a person strength and individuality even though the person is imitating a cultural ritual.

Faith Kapalko, a laser technician in Toronto, has been removing the evidence of people’s poor decisions for over two years. She has seen overdone sleeves, ambiguous flash tats, poorly executed stick-and-pokes, obsolete icons, and distorted portraits. Kapalko says most people got these tattoos when they were young and dumb or at “a weird point in their life.”

Rebecca—for whom Kapalko was removing a medieval gauntlet tattooed when she was 17—explained she was erasing the mark not for the content, but because she wished “it was executed differently.” She described regret at not checking artists’ portfolios and taking the time to think about what she was doing.

Others, such as Cynthia Finch, a tattoo artist in New Hampshire, say finding a job is the main reason people get tattoos removed. “I don’t think people take job security into consideration when getting tattooed,” or if they do, they “feel strongly enough about their tattoos that they acquire the mindset of, if they don’t like my tattoos, f**k 'em."

Despite Finch’s speculations, attitudes toward tattoos in the workplace are changing. Many Americans, particularly millennials, would be “extremely comfortable” with police officers (39%), real estate brokers (37%), bankers (36%), doctors (35%), judges (34%) and presidential candidates (32%) sporting visible tattoos.

With the rise of tattoos, there has undoubtedly been a rise in regretful tattoos, causing more people to go through the extremely painful removal process. The American Society for Dermatologic Surgery reported that in just a year, from 2012-'13, the number of tattoo removal treatments increased by 52 percent. Over a 10-year period, from 2005-2015, the industry has grown by 440 percent. According to one recent study, the global tattoo removal market will reach a worth of $3.5 billion in 2022.

In 2011, Phil Marandola and his mother, Carmen Vanderheiden, founded a company called TatAway, that uses a laser called the PicoSure to remove tattoos. The laser cost $275,000, a relatively small investment for how much money it will ultimately generate.

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Photo: Albina Glisic/Shutterstock

Marandolo’s business relies on the growth of the tattoo industry. “I tell [tattoo artists] I’ll give them free treatment with the old laser if they refer customers wanting work removed to us,” he told Vice.

Over the years, Marandolo has developed a relationship with Chad Chase, the owner of Venom Ink in Maine and a tattoo artist for 18 years. “I think people have learned what better tattooing looks like, and now they want that old crap removed and new stuff put on,” Chase said.

And getting the ink wiped completely from the skin is easier than ever before. Lorenzo Kunze II, the owner of the International Laser Academy, which trains and certifies people in tattoo removal, says the industry has skyrocketed, mostly because the treatment has improved significantly. Kunze entered the industry in 2001. Back then, he explains, “we were charging $1,000 to $2,000 a treatment and there was still scarring.”

Chase and Marandolo both agree that they need each other for their businesses to continue to thrive. “In all honesty, I would love to do lasering in my shop, but unfortunately the laws in Maine won’t allow it,” Chase explained. So instead, he relies on Marandolo.

Cultural attitudes toward tattoos are changing, as are the technological advancements for getting them removed. The two industries maintain a symbiotic relationship. With the knowledge they can wipe their skin clean, people are more likely to get some ink, and the more tattoos they get, the more tattoos they can get removed.

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