The scariest thing so far was going to that first consultation. Behind closed doors, I finally revealed what I so desperately wanted to get off my chest: a large, black, garish tattoo of a pirate ship surrounded by spotted roses.
The image inspires many questions: Do polka dotted roses exist? Why would a pirate ship be sailing through four of them? Is that a tiny pirate ship or some seriously enormous roses? I was sick of rhetorically asking myself these things every morning as I brushed my teeth. From far away the boat and the roses mesh into a giant dark blob hovering on my cleavage, creeping up past even some T-shirt necklines. The tattoo removal guy squinted at my boobs as he reassured me, "It was badly done. Lucky for you that means it will come out real easy."
I took a deep breath, then I stopped him from drawing up the final quote. "There's more." I rolled up my right sleeve. Then my left one. Then I tucked my hair behind my ear to show him the fourth and final tattoo I wanted gone. He gave me a sympathetic smile and said, "That last one can be on the house." So, the final verdict was $300 per session for 8 to 10 visits, spaced at least two months apart. The smaller, chicken-scratchy tattoos on my forearms were likely to disappear within the first few sessions, at which point he would adjust the price accordingly.
Maybe this does not sound like "no regrets" to you, but regret is a relative thing. Have I ever clawed at my chest while looking in the mirror and muttering to myself, "What have I done"? Maybe a time or two. But I still have not experienced that sinking I-ruined-my-life feeling that people seem to think a person with unwanted body ink should have. To put it another way, my body art regrets are approximately on par with, say, my regrets about not taking the international baccalaureate program in high school. It would be great if I was perfect, but this has not ruined my life, and neither have bad tattoos.
I have only come out to a few close friends and family members about the decision to remove some of my body art. For the most part, the idea has been met with disapproval, or at least a bit of debate. A few people have argued that they like my pirate ship. One of my friends made the point that removal hurts, which is saying a lot coming from someone who is tattooed practically everywhere but her face. A few people have said or implied that tattoos are supposed to be permanent, which I find just silly. It reminds me of people who say that bodies are not supposed to have tattoos. Says who? Why not?
Underpinning all of this is the fact that while tattoos are a relatively acceptable form of cosmetic surgery, tattoo removal is still not. As the years go on, I will probably have to explain my decision to every old acquaintance I run into. This frightens me, partially because it is such a personal story.
The story starts when, as a little girl, for some reason I developed a taste for an alternative aesthetic. I grew up poring over Suicide Girls, feeling so plain in comparison and daydreaming about all the tattoos I would someday have. Then, at age 15, I received news that would change my life: Tattoos could be done by oneself for only the cost of a sewing needle, some thread, and a bottle of India ink! After watching a YouTube tutorial on stick and poke tattoos, I was ready. I sanitized a needle by boiling it, wrapped it tightly in thread, saturated the white cotton with thick black pigment, and began poking away at my left ankle. A couple painful hours later I had my first tattoo, which was supposed to look like a raspberry.
This was the last time I would give myself a stick and poke, partially because I got a fake ID shortly after and decided to try it out at a tattoo shop. I got “Riot don’t diet” written in my own handwriting behind my left ear. As the guy did it, he kept telling me that he really liked tattooing girls necks because it triggered something predatory in him, “almost like a vampire.” After he was finished he told me to come back in 20 minutes and we could eat hot dogs. I never went back. Sketchy guy, but that’s what you get when you’re a 16-year-old white girl pretending to be a 26-year-old Latina named Alicia Morales. Señora Morales obviously had a much wider face than I did, a problem I handled by casually mentioning at strategic moments that I had just lost 50 pounds. Bouncers may have laughed me away from clubs but I had no problem getting tattoos from seedy shops, and even some good ones. (Speaking of which, I did get a few really beautiful tattoos during this time period.)
Compared to all the people who say they would love to get a tattoo but just can’t think of the perfect thing, my attitude toward selecting body art was extremely cavalier. I was not the only one who had this mentality; many of my friends were also getting tons and tons of tattoos. For at least some of us, it was less about each individual tattoo and more about the aesthetic of having them in general. Some people put all their money into big pieces from fancy shops, while others preferred swapping homemade ones at stick and poke parties. People got tattoos to commemorate their best friends, their roommates, their favorite video game consoles, inside jokes, all sorts of things. (Friendships can be fickle in your teens, and I saw many friends with matching tattoos grow to hate each other in ensuing years or even months. Oops.)
My mom had this to say about all our stick and poke parties: “The tattoo removal industry is going to explode in a few years.” Of course I knew she meant that as a warning, but I decided to take it as an assurance instead. If I did anything too stupid, I could always get it removed.
Around this time, I decided to get a drawing of a pirate ship I had done tattooed onto my chest, strung as if on a necklace by the phrase, “what goes up, must come down.” When I told this plan to my 30-year-old co-worker, he screamed with laughter. “You want to get that tattooed onto your tits?” An older lady in the waiting room at the tattoo shop tried a different argument, pleading with me to “think of your wedding day.” This approach did nothing for me, since, duh, I did not care about the hetero-patriarchal institution of marriage. The ship turned out well, but I quickly had second thoughts about the words, so I let a guy I had gone on a couple dates with who claimed to be a tattoo artist cover the lettering up with a wind design. And that’s where things really went downhill.
As the scabs fell off I recoiled in horror. Immediately, I went to the nicest shop in town to see if they could fix it. When I pulled down my shirt, the tattoo artist there looked me straight in the face and flatly asked, “Who did this to you?” The giant, sloppy, black mess could only be covered by something much bigger and very dark. I meekly agreed to the tattoo artists’ first sketch of a bunch of roses. It seemed like the only choice. And that is how I got my giant ship and rose chest tattoo, a dark black cover-up-of-a-cover-up.
These days when I get tattoos (which still happens sometimes! I still like them!) I only go to well-respected artists whose style and personality mesh with mine. I think things over slowly and deliberately, and I run screaming from cheap places. Sometimes I can’t believe I had to learn these things the hard way. And, like most people, I can’t help but judge people who have stupid tattoos, even if I have a few myself.
But, on the other hand, I still think some bad tattoos look great. Check out how dreamy Mykki Blanco looks topless, for example. Word on the street is that I look pretty dreamy topless, too. In many ways, my tattoos actually look great and my reasons for deciding on removal are not totally aesthetic. If you are reading this and you are happily covered in homemade tattoos, rest assured that you probably look great.
The first big reason I am getting these particular tattoos removed is unbelievably boring: I want to be able to wear shirts with different necklines and three quarter length sleeves and still appear tattoo-free. Some people will read this and think I am trying to hide who I am, which is a bit melodramatic if you ask me. I have just realized that my life’s ambitions involve navigating some environments where my tattoos are a detriment. After years of trying, I have realized that this cannot be addressed by wearing uniboobular shirts forever.
The second reason is really simple, too: I just do not want them anymore. Getting all these tattoos was part of a really wonderful adolescence, and I learned all sorts of lessons and made friends along the way. Now I am changing as a person. I don’t regret that, it’s just life.
As crazy as it sounds to say at the end of all this, I will miss the tattoos I am getting rid of. I also miss going to summer camp, but I guess you just grow out of certain things.