“I was only 18. It was a homemade tattoo done at a party,” says Lizeth Pleitez, 30, who quickly dries her eyes. Her voice is shaking. “I wasn’t thinking about what it meant, you know? Little did I know it meant something else — like people calling it a ‘tramp stamp.’ I’m a Pentecostal, and the body is a temple. And I felt really ashamed.”
If tattoos are the marks of an era — declarations of love, of loss, of triumph, of youthful exuberance or youthful foolishness — then tattoo removals are about regret, confessions that those landmarks are in the past. They’re about the realization that whatever you believed in with such force that you wanted it eternally branded on your skin is now foreign to you.
According to the Pew Research Center, more than 40 percent of Americans between the ages of 26 and 40 have at least one tattoo. Getting a tattoo, once the province of sailors rather than suburbanites, is so mainstream that tats are inked at the mall and seen on everyone from Middle American mothers to H Street hipsters to Hollywood starlets.
Perhaps not surprisingly, a parallel trend is emerging: tattoo removal, with dozens of businesses and training schools opening across the country. Some are headed by entrepreneurs such as Ryan Lambert, who has a Harvard degree and launched a tattoo-removal training school at New Looks Laser College in Houston. He also manufactures tattoo-removal lasers.
In Washington, Ken Saler, a 61-year-old, semi-retired real estate maverick has reinvented himself. His Advanced Laser Tattoo Removal office sits above a Baskin-Robbins ice cream store on Connecticut Avenue NW and has a steady stream of customers, all trying to dial back their everlasting tributes.
“We have a client who has ‘Steve’ tattooed on her chest. But now she’s marrying Dennis,” says Saler, whose bright white office features framed Grateful Dead posters and a print of Norman Rockwell’s “The Tattooist,” in which a heavily tatted-up sailor is having his sixth romantic conquest’s name scratched off his arm, and a seventh inked on, with an evil-looking needle.
Tattooing was once considered audacious, powerful and rebellious, precisely because of its permanence.
But for a generation that has come of age during an unprecedented revolution in medical technology, tattoo removal by a super-powered laser seems like a facelift for young people, a chance to start over, erase, rewind. Like deleting a bad photo from a digital camera or defriending a Facebook friend.
“It was such an underserved market,” says Christian Slavin, 54, who has an MBA from Harvard and owns Zapatat in Arlington County, which opened in September. “The difference between the regret rate and the removal rate is huge.”