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LONG GONE ARE the days when tattoos were considered taboo and could only be found on the bodies of convicts and motorcyclists. Today, everyone including our professors, mothers, and best friends have tattoos and are proud to show them off. But what happens when that pride wears off before the tattoo does? Two writers sat down with students and a tattoo artist to discuss the process of getting a tattoo… And the process of having one removed.

I heart my tattoo

In Dan Brown’s novel The Lost Symbol, he writes, “The human spirit craves mastery over its carnal shell.” Whether your motivations for getting tattooed are to rebel or conform, come from an impulsive whim or years of planning, a tattoo is a physical representation of who you are and what you believe. And if 30 years down the road that physical representation says to others, “When I was 20, I was a drunken moron who thought it was a good idea to get barbed wire around my biceps,” that’s OK, because it doesn’t change the fact that tattoos are a portrayal of your life and experiences.

I grew up with a mother who considers tattoos to be a mutilation of perfectly clean and pure bodies, and a father who has his entire back tattooed—and yes, he has a barbed-wired bicep. Much to my mother’s chagrin, I knew early on I would be getting tattooed, but also that I was 100 per cent against getting a tattoo just for the sake of having one.
We’ve all heard the number one argument against tattoos: When you’re old, grey, and wrinkled, you’re going to regret it. It could be argued, however, that the “mistakes” we make in our youth are just as permanent as tattoos. And besides, who wants to grow old and look just like every other wrinkled body? If you choose something you really love, chances are you’ll be proud to have that tattoo for the rest of your life.

The choice of tattoo artist is equally as important as the image you choose to ink on your body. Fortunately for me, the decision was an easy one. Mike Austin is one of the most reputable tattooists in my hometown, and although it can take anywhere from nine months to a year to get an appointment with him, he is well worth the wait.

Austin advises people researching tattoo artists to remember the importance of safety.

“First and foremost, make sure [the tattoo artist is] clean, sanitary, sterile, make sure they’re inspected, that they have a license, and that they’re approved by the health department,” he said. “A bad tattoo is shitty to have to go through life with, but a bad tattoo with an extra dose of hepatitis is even worse.”

Austin said the second most important thing to consider when choosing an artist is whether he or she has artistic talent. He cautioned against getting tattoos on a whim, and advised researching the tattooist’s experience and portfolio.

“The magic is largely gone out of tattooing,” he said. “It’s gone mainstream and there [are] so many young people doing it that aren’t serving full apprenticeships or learning from old timers. They’re just figuring it out on their own by looking at videos and DVDs and reading books and shit like that.”

Bree Rody-Mantha, a tattoo enthusiast and  fourth-year English and cultural studies student at Wilfrid Laurier University, said getting acquainted with the tattoo artist should be a priority before getting inked.

“It’s important to meet with your artist beforehand and make sure that their personality jives well with you,” she wrote in an email to the Fulcrum. “My second artist had no interest in meeting me beforehand—the consultation was all done through the secretary. It ended up being a somewhat negative experience because he didn’t make me feel comfortable while he was doing work on me.”

Austin credits his 25 years of experience as a tattoo artist for giving him the ability to understand what his clients are looking for. Having been in the business so long, he knows the importance of being honest with customers before beginning the tattooing process.

“It’s important to reject stuff. That’s why you see so many crappy tattoos on people, and that’s why you get people [who] are bitter and go get tattoos removed, because they probably chose poorly with whoever they chose to do their tattoo,” he said. “They probably chose someone [who] didn’t have the balls or the creativity or the foresight to tell them that their idea was bad, or they didn’t want them to know that they lacked the ability to do a good job on it.”

Rody-Mantha said people getting tattooed should want their artist to be honest.

“Don’t be insulted if an artist won’t do your design and wants to rework it,” she said. “These are professional artists [who] don’t want to lend their name to something that looks ridiculous or won’t age well. It’s a sign of a good artist.”

Rody-Mantha has no regrets about her tattoos.

“I’m not one of those people who rushed out to get a tattoo the second they turned 18 just for the sake of having a tattoo,” she said. “I know so many people who say, ‘I want a tattoo, I just don’t know what I’d get.’ That’s ridiculous to me. It’s the content of the tattoo that should be the primary motivation, not just wanting any tattoo because your friends have one.”

I now have four tattoos, all of which I was nervous for and all of which hurt, but they were carefully thought out and researched, and I have not an ounce of regret.

—Spencer Van Dyk
—With files from Kristyn Filip

Erase it!
I still remember that night. I was standing in the dark of my parent’s bedroom, agonizing over how I would break the news to them. Looking back, I believe I subconsciously chose to make the announcement as they were in bed with the lights off so that I wouldn’t have to see the looks on their faces. Rolling up my sleeve to reveal a bandage, I uttered the words they never thought they would hear me say: “I… I got a tattoo.”

Silence. My mom’s voice broke the quiet as she told me she didn’t even want to see it, and how could I do such a thing? Was I not thinking of my future? Job interviews—maybe a wedding? Everyone would see the tattoo and judge me. My dad’s reaction was much the same—extreme disappointment. As if the moment wasn’t devastating enough, my three brothers rolled out of bed and began chanting, “You fucked up! You fucked up!”

I was 19 years old at the time and thought I knew exactly what I wanted. I was—and still am—in love with the French language and culture, which was the inspiration for my tattoo. Following a three-month stay in Quebec as part of a French immersion program, I decided to have a French saying tattooed on my inner right forearm: “L’heure est venue,” which means “The time has come” in English.

Four years later, the time had come to say goodbye to the tattoo, which I became increasingly self-conscious of as I begin to transition into a professional career. I found myself wearing cardigans and jackets at my co-op position—even in 35 degree heat—in order to cover up my tattoo from the curious eyes of co-workers. Although I hate to say my mom was right, she was. A handshake is part of establishing a great first impression with a potential employer, and I worried a glance at the tattoo on my forearm would ruin that impression during a post-grad job interview.

I am not alone in my worries: There are many young adults who have a tattoo they now regret for one reason or another. According to Suzanne Linsmeier Kilmer, clinical associate professor from the Department of Dermatology at the University of California Davis, “the quest for identity by teenagers often becomes irrelevant or embarrassing by age 40, and 50 per cent or more of individuals later regret their tattoos.”

Kevin McCormick, a fourth-year University of Ottawa student, celebrated his 18th birthday by having a yin-yang tattooed on his thigh. His friends pitched in to pay for the tattoo, which represents the times he spent living in Canadian cities and the Caribbean.

McCormick has had second thoughts about his tattoo, but not because he wishes he didn’t get inked in the first place. His regrets are purely aesthetic. The details of his tattoo began to fade after a year, and he wishes the yin-yang was bigger because, “the amount of detail is directly related to the size of the tattoo.”

Steven Edwards*, a 26-year-old Algonquin College student, began getting inked when he was 16 years old. He has tattoos on his hands, neck, and forearms, and a number of the tattoos are gang-related. Edwards said getting tattooed is a common practice among young people in the Montreal neighbourhood where he grew up. His tattoos are a reflection of the attitudes of the young people he was surrounded by.

“[We were] not really focused on our future and the possibilities later on in life,” he said. “We’re really focused on living in this moment.”

Edwards is now a married man, father, and college student. The tattoos that were once meaningful to him are now an impediment to his success in adulthood.

“Later on in life, when I went to job interviews and when I went to register for school, it’s like you’re looked down upon,” he said.

Edwards said his tattoos have caused others to judge him based upon his past, rather than the way he chooses to live his life in the present. He sometimes feels uncomfortable in public when people focus on his tattoos and said it has had a “major effect on the psyche.”

Like Edwards, I hated feeling people’s eyes wander directly to my ink. Even worse was fielding questions about a tattoo I had grown to hate. When I explained the English translation, the answer was an inevitable eyebrow raise.
My decision to have my tattoo removed wasn’t based solely on what other people thought. The tattoo had transformed from a symbolic representation of my love of all things French to an everyday reminder of a huge mistake I made.

The summer before my last year of university, I decided to take the plunge and cash my income tax return in for laser removal treatments in hopes the tattoo would be gone by the time I started interviewing for a post-graduate career.

Six sessions later, my tattoo has faded considerably but is not completely gone. These results did not come without a significant amount of pain. The pain is two-fold: The treatment itself feels like my skin is being simultaneously sliced open and sprayed with hot oil—and that’s with the numbing cream. Immediately after the treatment, I feel significant pain when I fork over hundreds of dollars to the technician.

In total, I have spent close to $2,500 on the treatment, and plan to spend up to another $600—all to remove a tattoo the size of a ballpoint pen.

Edwards also decided to erase his mistakes by undergoing laser tattoo removal at Future Skin Tattoo, but not before attempting to remove the tattoos on his own. The scars on his hands are the result of taking a heated spoon to the skin in an attempt to burn off the tattoos.

He eventually decided to do it the right way, and has undergone five sessions of laser removal. Edwards expects to have seven more sessions in the future.

Removing multiple tattoos can be costly, but the price does not deter Edwards.

“I would pay maybe a million dollars if I had it just to get it removed, because the thing is money comes and goes,” he said. “The image that you portray to someone else is going to be there forever.”

McCormick has plans of his own, but they don’t involve laser tattoo removal. Calling laser removal pricey and risky, McCormick has considered incorporating the yin-yang into a bigger tattoo. He advises others thinking about getting a tattoo to “go big or go home.”

Edwards’ advice is quite different. For those who have lost loved ones and are planning to get a tattoo in remembrance, he warned, “You can’t really have that person’s memory embedded in your skin. It’s better to remember them in your mind than on your skin.”

Edwards recommended those who are thinking of  getting a tattoo for artistic purposes find a different way to express creativity.

This is the same advice my mom gave me, a little too late. A French saying I find meaningful and inspirational is equally so in a frame on my wall—it doesn’t necessarily have to be on my skin.

When any of my friends mention they are considering a tattoo, I show them graphic photos of my blistered, oozing, and swollen arm post-treatment, and tell them stories of trying to explain my tattoo to a table of disapproving relatives at a family reunion.

Everyone is entitled to make their own choices, especially regarding their body. I urge you to consider the possibility, no matter how slight, that you may regret the tattoo years down the road. If that time comes, you had better pray for a massive income tax return cheque.

—Sarah Horlick

*Name has been changed to protect identity