Menus Subscribe Search

Tattoo Remorse Spawns New Business

• November 03, 2011 • 4:00 AM

Tattoo remorse is leading many of the painted masses to rethink their ink, which is fueling a burgeoning business: specialty tattoo removal shops.

Buffy Martin Tarbox was 22 when she got her first tattoo. It was a 4-by-3-inch, black and red circle above a cross — the symbol for women—on her arm. Less than a month later, she added a second tattoo: a black Celtic knot on her other arm. But when Martin Tarbox reached her mid-30s, she decided it was time for the ink to go. “When I got the tattoos, like most people, I was young,” she says. “Believe me, I regret it. I’m a professional woman now.”

Roughly a third of Americans between the ages of 25 and 29 have at least one tattoo, according to a 2008 Harris Poll. So do a quarter of 30- to 39-year-olds. Like many trends, celebrities are helping to drive the desire to get inked — roughly 70 percent of NBA basketball players are tatted up, according to Andrew Gottlieb’s In the Paint: Tattoos of the NBA and the Stories Behind Them, as are a slew of entertainers from Lil Wayne to Lady Gaga.

But tattoo remorse is leading many of the painted masses to rethink their ink and opt for increasingly available laser removal procedures. They are fueling a burgeoning business: specialty removal shops, like California’s Dr. Tattoff, Chicago’s Hindsight Tattoo Removal, and Zap A Tat in Virginia, are thriving.

[class name="dont_print_this"]

The Nov-Dec 2011
Miller-McCune

Nov-Dec 2011 Miller-McCuneThis article appears in our Nov-Dec 2011 issue under the title “Disappearing Ink.” To see a schedule of when more articles from this issue will appear on Miller-McCune.com, please visit the
Nov-Dec 2011 magazine page.[/class]

“It’s a common misconception that our patients are gang members and bikers,” says Dr. Tattoff founder Will Kirby, a Beverly Hills dermatologist who starred in the reality TV shows Big Brother 2 and Dr. 90210. “Our average patient is a female between the ages of 25 and 40 who got a tattoo as an aesthetic statement and now has a different lifestyle. It might be that the tattoo is a barrier to employment, … maybe it’s just a sign associated with the person’s youth. … I see absolutely gorgeous work. That said, every bad tattoo that you could think of — spelled wrong, done in the garage, etc. — we see a lot more of that than we see beautiful work.” He adds, “If you want to immediately ruin a relationship, get your significant other’s name tattooed on you.”

In 2004, Kirby realized more and more patients were asking him for tattoo-removal help, so he started providing the services once a week. Today, practitioners at Dr. Tattoff clinics have performed more than 110,000 treatments at the company’s five full-time clinics (four in California and one in Texas). The company plans to open at least two more — one in Houston and one in Atlanta—before the end of the year. And Kirby speculated that the company might go public later this year.

Spurring the industry growth is vastly improved technology. In the last decade, dermatologists began using a “Q-Switched” laser that directs short pulses of highly focused light energy at the tattoo, heating up the ink and breaking it into fragments that are absorbed by the body.

“The new technology is so far superior to the old,” says Amy Derick, an Illinois dermatologist who performs 25 to 50 tattoo removal procedures per month. The laser makes removal less painful than harsh previous techniques like dermabrasion and salabrasion (scrubbing ink out with sandpaper and salt) or simply cutting out the tattoo and sewing the skin back together.

Kirby calls the current process “uncomfortable, but tolerable,” like being snapped with a rubber band several times. And removing a tattoo requires more time and money than getting one. Most patients undergo between five and 15 treatments, depending on the person’s skin tone, ink and tattoo location.

Practitioners often charge by the square inch; each treatment at Dr. Tattoff costs $49 per square inch for the first five square inches, $25 per square inch for the next five, and $15 per square inch for each additional inch. At Sunset Strip Tattoo in Hollywood, an average small tattoo (2 to 4 square inches) costs about $100.

Kirby says the outcome is by no means guaranteed, but for many of his patients, the time, money, and uncertainty are nothing compared to the lasting sting of an embarrassing tat.

After about six treatments by a dermatologist in Nevada and more than $1,200, Martin Tarbox’s tattoos faded but remained visible. “My husband jokes that it looks like I have prison tattoos. They look pretty bad,” she says, adding, “As my dad would always say, ‘If you can’t be a good example, be a horrible warning.’”

Chris Opfer
Chris Opfer is an attorney and freelance writer in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in a number of publications including the Atlantic, the Daily Beast, Popular Science, the Village Voice, and Draft magazine.

More From Chris Opfer

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.