Tatted Up

Here’s What Getting A Tattoo Removed Is Really Like

Beauty is pain and more pain.

Written by Tanya Akim
Tanya Akim

When people ask me why I do the things I do, I typically don’t have an answer. Saying things like, “It seemed fun,” and “There was mezcal there,” don’t often suffice as adequate responses for the anthropologically inquisitive types. Recently, I learned a new response mechanism. I now like to say that I’m sired to a creative and brilliant vampire, and that vampire happens to be my friend Mira — better known as the celebrity tattoo artist and expert in all things relationship-oriented, @girlknewyork.

Mira was visiting Los Angeles while I was in the middle of a tattoo binge and she was in the middle of a pop-up show selling art. I told her I wanted a cover-up. I’ve had a tattoo covered up before; it involved a Darth Vader helmet and a lot of black ink. Cover-ups typically need to be much larger and much darker than the original piece in order to, well, adequately cover it up.

This time it wouldn’t be as simple as a Disney villain and a styrofoam cup full of brown liquor. “I can’t cover that,” Mira said as she looked at my hand. It was one of my first tattoos. Originally, it said, “let go” in cursive writing. I got it as a teenager right after a painful breakup. Tattoos used to be embarrassing or cathartic for me; now they’re just fun, like a collection of modern art that I wear as if it were jewelry.

Tanya Akim

Several years into my “let go” life, I decided I was sick of the New-Age-y phrase on my hand — especially because I live in LA and am constantly followed by a barrage of buzzy wellness things like “high vibrational food” — and I needed to change it. I think tattoos should be evolutionary; something to always add onto as life twists and untangles. One afternoon I decided to ditch the catharsis and add an apostrophe and an “s'' to the phrase: “Let’s go”. I was introduced to the now-famous tattoo artist Daniel Winter through a very typical LA text exchange and I found myself at his studio the same afternoon. Let’s go, I thought.

Six years went by as I came and went, and now it was time for the tattoo itself to go.

“You should get that removed,” said Mira to my widened eyes. Like myself, she and her business partner Brooklyn come from the same school of thought: You should have to live with your decisions whether they’re good or bad. Tattoo removal was not something I ever believed in, and I always enjoyed seeing how people could morph their ink into something bigger, better, or just plain funnier.

There are only a few people’s opinions that I take seriously, and Mira’s is one of them. It was the first and only time she’d ever suggested tattoo removal to someone. The reason? “It just doesn’t fit you at all,” she says. Mira was right. I outgrew the breakup, the ablution, the forward momentum, and now I was ready for a fresh start. Like any good sire, I took the directive under advisement and started my path to a clean hand via laser tattoo removal. Here’s what the (painful) process was really like.

Tanya Akim

What To Expect When Undergoing Laser Tattoo Removal:

Pain

Do not let anyone fool you; laser tattoo removal hurts like hell. A licensed nurse used The Spectra, a Q-switched ND YAG laser by Lutronic, on my hand. It is considered the gold standard in safe laser tattoo removal of all ink colors, but the laser’s light particularly targets darker colors like black and blue. Because of the proximity to my palm and all of its associated nerve endings, this hurt a lot. The nurse offered lidocaine injections prior to the treatment which I declined so that I could see if I could handle it. A common example is that it feels like bacon grease splattering from a pan. For my palm-adjacent tattoo, it felt like my whole hand was in the fryolator. As a reference point, I have a very high pain threshold. I’ve had a root canal with no novocaine and I was awake and watching during a recent eye surgery. My advice: Take the lidocaine injections.

Patience

The nurse practitioner let me in on the hard truth that she’d likely be seeing me three to five more times to remove my one-inch hand tattoo with eight-week intervals between sessions. The time between sessions allows for the ink to be broken up and dissolved by the body. I was told I would see minor changes — slight fading and possible patchiness — after two to three weeks of the first treatment. Each treatment, she’d be going up in setting strength. She started at a level three on the Spectra laser for my olive-toned skin.

More Pain

The day of the treatment, my skin felt like it was badly burned. Not sunburned, but burned by a waffle pan or straightening iron. The nurse advised taking ibuprofen for the pain and occasionally icing the area as you would with a burn.

Aftercare

It’s crucial to keep the treated area out of the sun throughout the entire length of treatment— whether that’s 6 months or 2 years. With hands, this can be quite difficult as I drive everyday, I live in Southern California, and I love everything in-relation to beaches and bikinis. On the day of the treatment, it’s advised to keep the area out of water and to reapply Aquaphor or a healing balm like Avene’s Cicalfate+ as the skin repairs itself.

Price

Laser tattoo removal can cost anywhere from $250 to upwards of $2,000 per session depending on the size of the tattoo, color, and age of the ink. My first treatment was $250 for the one-inch hand tattoo that I originally got for free in the back of a forest-green flatbed truck somewhere in Moscow while I was visiting family.

My takeaway after all of this — as a lover of tattoos, keep them light and fun.