The tattoo on Colin Stark’s* neck is meant to symbolise his struggle to escape the poverty and violence of his early life. “Sink or Swim” runs the legend across his throat, below images of a “zombie woman” (denoting sinking) and a cheerful “cartoon woman”, for the swim option.
“Right,” says the laser clinician, Natasha Collings, when we’ve all donned protective goggles. “Are you ready, babe?”
Snapsnapsnapsnap! goes the ink in Stark’s skin, shattering audibly (a sound like tiny whip cracks) as Collings moves the high-energy laser beam across the glowering zombie. Snapsnapsnapsnapsnapsnap! go the cartoon woman and the stoic credo Stark sought to live by, all breaking into tiny pieces to be carried away in his bloodstream like sand in a current.
An oddly familiar odour permeates the room. “Smells like pork,” says Collings, who used to be a lawyer. “But it’s just his beard stubble burning.” As she works the laser beam quickly and deftly across the tattoo, it appears to fade before our eyes. But the process lasts only a few minutes before Collings covers the treated area with soothing ice packs; when she removes them five minutes later the tattoo is almost as visible as ever, but suffused with an angry red glow which Stark says feels like sunburn.
It’ll be six weeks before his throat can undergo another laser session here at Collings’s City Tattoo Removal shop in the Brisbane CBD, where the award-winning businesswoman prides herself on a safety-first approach. “I’ll have to go over that one eight to 10 times,” she tells Stark. “What we’re doing is taking layer upon layer of ink off … if I treat you more than I have in this session there’d be [health risks], and I don’t do that.”
At Stark’s next fortnightly appointment, she’ll turn her attention to the words “stay true” spelt out letter by letter on his knuckles, and various symbols on the backs of his hands, applied, like most of his ink, by bikie tattooist friends in his teenage years. In about 18 months, when his throat and hands are “clean” again, all visible signs of Stark’s troubled past will be gone.
Maybe then, the tall, well-spoken 31-year-old tells me, he’ll finally get the promotions he feels he deserves in his job as a sales consultant. “Over the years I’ve been passed over for three promotions [potentially] worth up to 30 grand a year,” says the married father-of-three. “I’ve been told on the quiet it’s because of how I look … it used to really frustrate me, because I’ve worked so hard. But I’ve come to accept that it’s just the way things are.”
Stark seems to bear testament to the truism that early influences (and confronting tatts) aren’t always a measure of who we become. Estranged from the parents he fled at 14, he grew up abusing drugs and alcohol, brawling and hanging about bikie tattoo shops on Brisbane’s gritty northern fringes. By the time he was 20 his body bore images of many disparate things, including a pirate ship, a bear, a shark, an Asian monkey god, dollar signs, roses and an American eagle.
Back then, Stark felt his tattoos helped to define who he was. “In fact,” he admits, “I felt they were all that I was. Before I met my wife, I had no future plans or expectations because I honestly didn’t think I was going to live past 21.” Now, although his wife and their young daughters have become the focus of his life, his tatts still feel like part of his “persona”, and he has no plans to get rid of all of them.
The only exceptions, apart from those on his throat and hands, are what he ruefully calls “a couple of very promiscuous women naked in provocative positions”, etched on his upper thighs. Stark plans to have them covered, or “inked over”, by a tattooist friend. “They’re the only ones I regret getting,” he tells me. “With our daughters starting to grow up, I have to constantly make sure that any shorts I’m wearing are long enough to cover them.”
The world’s burgeoning tattoo-removal industry is based on the inevitability of change. As we age, we see things differently – not just the things we had inked into our skins at 18, but the notion of tattooing itself. Although centuries old, tattoos as an “edgy” contemporary fashion appropriated from misfits and badasses was doomed by the 1990s, when all sorts of conventional people joined the stampede to ink in the hope it would make them seem less conventional.
Suburban parents got them to bond with their kids; middle-aged professionals got them in “discreet” locations to enliven their self-images; gang members and military types weighed in, as always, to identify with their tribes; celebrities and sports stars splurged on beautiful, expensive tatts, then cheaply and hideously copied by thousands of crazed fans; fate-tempting lovers got them in the name of fidelity, and countless other ordinary, law-abiding citizens got them because it was fashionable.
And then it wasn’t. Not really. Because at some point in the past decade or so, tattoos themselves became conventional. “Don’t get one, and stay unique,” counselled veteran American celebrity tattooist Lyle Tuttle a few years before his death in 2019. “… [Because] now it’s a trend and a fad, and trends and fads end.”
That hasn’t quite happened yet. Increasing numbers of us are getting rid of bad or embarrassing tatts, some are going cleanskin again, and others are using lasers to dust off their skins like blackboards before redecorating with better, more finely wrought designs made possible by improved tattooing technology. But the writing, as Tuttle tipped, is definitely coming off the wall.
In Australia, where tatts are most popular among those aged from 20 to 39, research suggests between a quarter and a fifth of the adult population now have them. Of these, almost half have just one, 30 per cent have two or three, 15 per cent have up to nine, and seven per cent have 10 or more. Australia has more than 1000 tattoo shops or studios (or “parlours”, as they used to be known), employing upwards of 2000 people, where the fashion’s latecomers and redecorators still contribute to the industry’s national annual turnover of about $100 million.
Yet as early as 2013, according to McCrindle Research, roughly a third of those with tatts had regrets about getting them, and 15 per cent were either having them removed or thinking about it. Earlier American studies showed that the first wave of removals in the late 1990s involved mostly men, but by 2006 – when laser removal technology underwent significant improvements, mostly in the sharpening of the focus of energy beams, women had become the main clients. In most Western countries they were typically white, single professionals and semi-professionals, aged from 24 to 39, who’d acquired their tattoos when they were about 20.
“They wanted [them] removed because their quest for uniqueness had turned into [a stigma] and led to negative comments and clothes-wearing problems,” writes Louisa McKay, managing director of Costhetics, an online information source for cosmetic medicine in Australia.
Which pretty much describes the client demographic Collings had in her sights when she took a redundancy as a Brisbane corporate insurance lawyer and opened City Tattoo Removal in 2016. A small, forthright woman with a lively turn of phrase, Collings reckons she’d had enough of “corporate psychopaths”, and research led her to tattoo removal as an industry about to boom.
“The tattoo craze was starting to reverse,” she says. “There was a whole [Millennial] generation that got inked up fast, and often badly, and a lot of them wanted these tatts gone forever.”
She warns all would-be clients that laser removal is painful – “like hot fat splattering on your skin” – and costly: roughly $150 to $200 a visit for a tattoo twice the size of a business card, with some removals requiring 10 or more visits.
Like many of her target clients, Collings – now in her mid-40s – got the first of her few, mostly hidden small tattoos when she was 20. She’s since had one of them, a so-called “tramp stamp” on her lower back, removed. (According to Wikipedia, the tramp stamp was popularised in the late ’90s and early 2000s, when it “gained a reputation for its erotic appeal”.) “It was the quickest way of being popular other than taking drugs and screwing blokes,” Collings notes wryly.
Among the 2000-odd removal clients she has worked on, or is still working on, are a young Australian whose Japanese-language tatt wasn’t what he imagined – “He only found out after he met a Japanese girl who asked, ‘Why have you got “Tough Tofu” on your tricep?’ And he was, like, ‘No man, that’s a warrior symbol!’ ”; a suave, mid-30s international flight attendant who, at the age of 18, had thought it hilarious to have the words “shit c…” emblazoned on his thigh; a young man who sought to look “tougher” by having “FTS” (for “f… the system”) inked on his forehead, and his jaw tattooed to resemble an X-ray of the inside of his mouth; and several women who’d been coerced into getting “brand” tattoos by controlling men.
The ugliest of these was applied at home by the woman’s then-boyfriend. “Property of Justin” it said, followed by a date. “That was probably the most vile tattoo I’ve ever seen,” says Collings with a shudder. Another such client is a solicitor whose violent partner made her get one covering an entire thigh.
“It was a nice tattoo, and not something you’d think was forced on her. But apparently his thinking was that lots of guys don’t like tattoos, so this was another way of controlling her.” Now separated from her abuser, the solicitor is in the final stages of having his “stamp” removed. “As it comes off,” says Collings, “I can see the psychological weight of it coming off her as well. It gives me a lot of joy to be able to do that.”
Collings works alone in a small office space in the city. Her 2019 Australian Enterprise (APAC) award for being Brisbane’s Tattoo Rectification and Removal Expert of the Year is displayed in the foyer. When she goes into the streets between removals, Collings can’t help wondering what strange imagery is concealed beneath the clothing of passers-by. “Thousands upon thousands of average, ordinary, everyday people,” she muses. “Yet I know now that many of them have tattoos they’re hiding from the world.”
For a year or so, Shona Cryer loved the two giant “Disney” princess portraits she designed herself and had tattooed on her thighs. And then she didn’t. “Suddenly, I was like, ‘Oh no! Why did I do this!’ ” the veterinary nurse, 28, tells me as the laser fires up again in Collings’ treatment room. Today, they’re working on the right-thigh princess, which Cryer – being a Capricorn – had crowned with some sort of goat’s head. The left-thigh princess has pointy ears and whiskers to denote her work homing unwanted cats.
Both princesses, done by a tattooist whose “heart wasn’t in it”, are supposed to resemble Cryer, but don’t. Once brightly coloured, they’ve now faded to faint outlines after more than a year of Collings’s periodic laser treatments. Cryer has other tatts she’s getting rid of, and some she’s keeping, but it was the princess portraits that became the bane of her life.
Cryer’s love-hate relationship with her own skin began with her admiration of her mine-worker father’s prolific tattoos as a kid at the family home in Mackay. “I thought they were cool,” she says. “But Dad regretted getting most of them, and warned me never to get any or I’d regret it too. It was a huge thing with him, and I think not being allowed to do it made me really want to.”
On her 18th birthday, holidaying with friends after finishing high school, Cryer came across a tattoo shop in Airlie Beach offering small tatts for $60. “And I thought, ‘Right! I’m gonna do it!’ ” She chose a bird from the shop’s flash-card display – “Even though I don’t really like birds” – and had it inked on her left wrist. “It was only after I walked out that I noticed the bird had only one wing!”
Her father was outraged. “He took one look and said, ‘Get the f… outta this house!’ ” she laughs. “So I left, and didn’t come back for three weeks.” Two years later, when she’d moved to Brisbane, Cryer paid $200 to have the princess portraits emblazoned on the front of her thighs. For a while, she wore shorts and displayed them proudly. Then something changed. “It’s so odd,” she says, “when you feel something is part of you, and then you don’t want to look like that any more. I started covering them because they suddenly seemed tacky, and not, like, nice any more.”
Six years ago, Cryer decided to have her princesses and one-winged bird removed. She researched laser removal options via social media and opted for a national chain that advertised widely. But the treatment went badly. Instead of confining the laser beam to a small section of her ink work, then moving to another part on the next appointment, the operator raced across both princesses and the bird on Cryer’s first session.
“And unlike [Collings], they didn’t change the laser wavelengths to [alter its intensity] for different colours,” Cryer explains. “They just set the laser at full bore and zoomed all over everything. My skin blistered as they did it, but they told me that was normal!” And instead of applying antiseptic powder to the treated area and covering it with a sterile silk bandage, the technician applied moisturising cream and wrapped it in cling film.
Cryer developed severe pain. Both legs swelled dramatically, fluid oozed from the extensive blistering and she felt sick and lethargic for days. Collings says Cryer had developed toxic shock as a result of her immune system being overloaded: “If you fracture too much ink into the bloodstream during one laser treatment, that’s what can happen.”
Frightened by this outcome, Cryer waited six months before returning to the clinic for the second of seven treatments she’d been told would be needed to remove her tatts. This time the result was even worse, with deep bruising to both thighs, permanent scarring and more flu-like illness. “After that,” she says, “I decided I’d keep the tatts. They were a total mess by then. It was really depressing. I felt I couldn’t go forward or backwards. I was stuck.”
More than three years passed before Cryer stumbled upon City Tattoo Removal while visiting a chiropractor in the same building. Collings, who’d just opened for business, was shocked to learn what the other clinic had done to Cryer. She explained her own treatment and safety protocols, and began work a few days later.
There was no more blistering, bruises or sickness. After a few more treatments, Cryer’s persistent princesses will finally be gone.
“A lot has changed since all this started,” she says. “At 18, I thought I was all grown up, but you’re not. You just keep changing into different sorts of people.”
Amazingly, given the health risks involved, only Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia have regulations governing the use of cosmetic lasers for tattoo removal. In all other parts of Australia – including the two most populous states, NSW and Victoria – anyone can buy a cheap (and potentially dangerous) laser machine for $10,000 or less, then advertise for clients as an “accredited” laser technician. The same applies to cosmetic beauty therapy, where lasers are used for skin-tightening and other treatments.
According to Dr Ken Karipidis, a Melbourne-based scientist with the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA), the risks involved with unregulated laser use range from transitory minor burns and swelling to serious burns that cause permanent scarring and changes to skin pigmentation, and eye injuries. “If you’ve got a face tattoo that’s close to an eye … the damage to eyes can [cause] blindness,” says Karipidis.
ARPANSA has sought a national approach to regulating the use of cosmetic lasers for years without success. “There are many qualified [medical] professionals properly trained to use these devices [even in unregulated states and territories],” adds Karipidis, “but the problem of unqualified operators remains.”
A major obstacle to establishing national guidelines has been that no one knows the extent of the problem: “The evidence we have [of damage to health] is largely anecdotal. We know it occurs, but there hasn’t been a proper study done … and there isn’t a register that records injuries due to tattoo removal.”
As Karipidis explains, heat lasers remove tattoos with a highly focused beam of energy-carrying light that burns off the ink pigment in the skin. The pigment then shatters into fragments which are absorbed into the blood. There are three types of lasers: the basic, cheaper types known as IPL (intense pulsed light) machines, which cost between $10,000 and $15,000; Q-switched machines – like the one used by Natasha Collings – which are the industry standard and cost up to $200,000; and PicoWay devices, which use sound waves instead of heat to shatter tattoo ink, and sell for up to $300,000.
“You should definitely not use an IPL for tattoo removal,” says Karipidis. Although often marketed for the purpose, IPL machines can’t be focused as intensely as the other types, and lack variable wavelengths for treating different ink colours, “which means you’re burning a whole area [which can damage surrounding skin] rather than just the tattoo ink.”
In spite of such complexities, anyone in Australia’s unregulated areas – where some lasers are marketed as an online package with a two-day training course and a certificate of “competence” – can legally become a tattoo removalist. In Queensland, by contrast, Collings had to complete a demanding training course run by a radiation unit within the state’s health department before starting business. The course includes laser science, wound management and infection control, and can take up to six months. “After that,” says Collings, “your first 100 hours of laser work have to be personally supervised by a qualified laser clinician.”
State health departments in NSW and Victoria are investigating the problems associated with the open-slather use of cosmetic lasers. “But I’m not sure how quickly they’ll move,” says Karipidis, “or what the end result will be.”
Women are generally credited with giving more thought to the design of their tattoos than men. Yet among younger women, the decision to get any sort of tatt seems to involve a view of themselves that can change rapidly once the deed is done. On my final visit to City Tattoo Removal, Jules Moffatt, 22, is in the last stages of a removal involving two large lotus flowers on her back and an elephant face on her leg.
Moffatt was just 17 when she had the flowers etched on either side of her spine at a tattoo shop in suburban Brisbane without telling her parents. “I chose a place that didn’t look too professional,” she confesses, “because I needed someone who wasn’t going to check my ID … I think the tattooist knew I was under-age, because I was in and out the door pretty quickly.”
Why did she want a tattoo? Moffatt talks of having just returned from a trip overseas after finishing school, and wanting something to “symbolise” that point in her life. Then she pauses, and starts again.
“I think I enjoyed the rebellion of it,” she says. “And how people would instantly see it as, like, [indicative] of a bad person … and I liked that I could be seen as that person and still be a good person.”
But after a brief period, Moffatt, who was majoring in physics at university before recently dropping out, began to realise her first tattoo was “a permanent symbol of just a temporary feeling, and I couldn’t move past that …”
Then, only a few months after getting the lotus flowers, she paid the same tattooist to etch an elephant’s face on her leg. A year after that, Moffatt began casting around for the best way to have both her tattoos removed. By then, she’d concluded that she no longer accepted her own reasons for getting them: “I thought I was taking control of my own body and all those things, when really I was just, like, angry at the world.”
Snapsnapsnapsnap! go the fading traces of ink in her lotus flowers as she lies, face down, in Collings’ treatment room. Despite the intensity of the pain in a laser removal near the spine, Moffatt declines Collings’ offer to take a break. “I always go the full session,” she says, hands clenched at her sides. “I know I’m getting rid of something I don’t want, so the pain is quite therapeutic.”
* Not his real name.
Frank Robson is a regular columnist and feature writer with Good Weekend.