Ink on, ink off: the shady side of the tattoo removal industry

Experts call for tighter regulations to protect consumers from clueless amateurs and unsafe clinics

Fine black lines on white skin immediately catch the eye as she pulls down her sleeve to reveal the empty birdcage on her arm.

“I don’t like where it is. The size is wrong and it’s too exposed. The design doesn’t suit me either.” The list goes on. “It felt wrong from the start, and I constantly asked people what they thought of it, because I just wasn’t convinced.” Andrea Skovgård seems lost in her thoughts of regret as her stern eyes examine the tattoo. “Yeah, I dunno.” She slides her sleeve back over her arm. “I just want get rid of it.”

Andrea SkovgÃ¥rd couldnÂ’t stand her birdcageÂ’s view anymoreFortunately for Skovgård, there’s a way out. Unluckily for Skovgård, it’s an expensive way out. It’s mistakes and regrets such as these that have allowed the tattoo removal business to develop into a growing industry over the past ten years around the world.

As tattoos have become an accepted accessory of society, their popularity as a fashion statement has grown substantially. So much so that 13 percent of the population admit to having ink on their body. That’s over 700,000 people: double the population of Aarhus. And with more tattoos comes a greater demand for their removal. But where there’s growth in industry, there’s also competition. And while generally speaking that might be healthy, there is a flipside.

High demand … and saturation

“Ex-girlfriends’ names, ex-boyfriends’ names, tribal tattoos, Asian characters that have different meanings to what was thought … ” Jannick Jeppesen, the owner of the Spectra removal clinic in central Copenhagen, has seen plenty of customers pass through his doors since opening in 2006. The introduction of the ‘Q-Switched Laser’ in the 1990s brought credibility to the tattoo removal industry (lasers have been used for removing tattoos since 1958; before then, the skin was surgically removed or sanded down in a procedure called dermabrasion, but the success rate always varied), and since then it has experienced a boom.

However, according to Jeppesen, who also owns a parlour in Aarhus, “business is slowing down”. While the rewards are lucrative – the reputable parlours tend to charge their clients 10,000 kroner per removal – the market place has become oversaturated.  

 “The industry is still growing,” continued Jeppesen. “It’s just that the recession has created an unhealthy form of competition. Granted, laser removal is an expensive procedure, but these days you can buy a cheap piece of equipment straight out of China over the internet and start your own removal business.”

Jeppesen’s views are shared by Tatto-Liz, a tattoo artist who used to own a laser removal clinic. “There are two types of clinic now,” explained Tatto-Liz, who today works at a private hospital in Glostrup, where she provides cosmetic tattooing services to cancer victims. “There are the ones who take it seriously, and those who do it for quick profit. Right now there is no form of regulation in place. I’ve been trained and certified to carry out these types of removals. But there’s nothing stopping you from buying a cheap laser and setting up shop. Absolutely nothing. And that has to change.”

It’s not like these problems aren’t well documented. Recently, politicians called for tighter regulation in the tattoo industry after DR’s consumer affair programme ‘Kontant’ exposed the dangers of amateur work. But as long as the prices of laser surgery remain sky-high, it would appear that many are prepared to take the risk.

Worth the expense?

Ashley Annis, though, is not going to make the same mistake twice after an amateur tattooist made a complete mess of the work on her foot. “I really wanted this tattoo. And one day I met this Danish guy who said he could design and tattoo it for me without it getting too expensive. But it looked terrible,” she remembered.

“I hated it right away. I just hated it. It looked like a third grader trying to write. And sadly it’s not exactly something you can get away from.”

For the time being, Annis, who is understandably wary of seeking cheap laser treatment, is stuck with it because she cannot afford to go to a clinic. “It’s too expensive. I had five sessions done with the laser in Canada, but the prices in Copenhagen are more than double.”

An average sized tattoo (8x8cm) will cost you between 9,000 to 12,000 kroner to remove. “The cost is a reflection of the quality of the equipment,” Jeppesen explained. “So if you find a laser clinic that offers low rates, alarm bells should be ringing straightaway.”

The risks associated with low laser rates are serious. Not only is there a real risk of infection from poorly maintained equipment, but the resulting scarring and skin damage can be irreversible and lead to medical bills far greater than a professional removal.

The lesser of two removers?

Ashley AnnisÂ’s tattoo: now you see it ...And there are some who argue that many of the ‘reputable’ clinics need greater regulation, as well. Tatto-Liz, who is a registered nurse, questions the current rules that stipulate that a clinic can operate a laser providing it has the indirect supervision of a doctor – in other words, a doctor who they can contact  should anything go wrong. Tatto-Liz feels some form of medical knowledge is just as important as the right kind of training.

Jeppesen doesn’t agree. “Me? A medical education? No,” he said. “I’m no doctor, but I take my practice very seriously. I’ve done the training and worked hard on branding a professional business.”

But he does agree that some clinics need to raise their standards. “There are many who don’t take this industry as seriously as I do,” he said. “I’ve been doing this since 2006 and know exactly what I’m doing. But there are plenty of people who know nothing about lasers. And legally speaking, they don’t need to either. Something has to change. And it’s not just a problem in this business; the same goes for tattoos. I mean, you can tattoo someone’s eyeballs, for Christ’s sake, and no-one will be running up to you to tell you differently.”... and now you can still see it!

Thus far, the dangers of an unregulated tattoo removal industry are largely unknown to society. While the risk of using an amateur is obvious, many are unaware of those associated with using a clinic.

Meanwhile, Ashley Annis can’t afford to get rid of her faded markings, and Andrea Skovgård is currently looking for a laser clinic to remove the birdcage from her forearm. Both face difficult decisions that won’t become any easier until the government takes decisive action to regulate the tattoo removal industry.