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The Existential Crisis Of Removing A Tattoo

I'd do anything to get rid of it. Anything.

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One Friday night in the late 1990s, I walked into a tattoo parlor on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, alone. I’d been there once before, to show the artist a drawing I’d done that I wanted permanently inked on my back. The design can best be described as a naked tree-angel goddess, and it was inspired by my mom, who once told me that the best things you can give your children are roots and wings. Ironically, if my Southern belle mother had ever seen the tattoo she inspired, she would have passed out cold from grief.

That night on Melrose, after five painful hours spent listening to the buzz of the needle, the naked tree angel was finished. I walked home elated, feeling cool and, in a way, invincible. I was 22 years old, not tethered to anything except my own dramatic, quarter-life existential dread and now this huge tattoo. That night, and for many years after, I was absolutely sure this ink would be part of me forever.

Cut to two decades later. Instead of feeling elated by my tattoo, I hate it so much that I’m willing to undergo the excruciatingly horrific pain of having it removed by lasers. Actually, “excruciatingly horrific” might be too mild of a description. After I chickened out and left after one zap at the first removal appointment (this was many months before we were all sheltering at home), a tattooed friend tried to comfort me by saying, “Be proud of your tattoo! It represents who you were before you became a mom!”

But did it? Was this giant naked tree angel ever really me, or did I just fall prey to the 1990s fever dream of grunge? It definitely didn’t feel like me, as evidenced by the fact that I spent every summer for the past five years searching for sexy one-piece bathing suits with a full coverage back. Do you have any idea how hard that is to find? It’s near impossible. But year after year, I searched.

Despite my friend’s pep talk, I was still determined to erase the tattoo I once loved. I made another removal appointment and screamed as the laser tech zapped away. It was agony, for $100 bucks a session, but I hoped it would all be worth it.

Maybe the pain of a hot laser scorching your skin inspires contemplation, because the experience got me thinking about people’s changing relationship to their tattoos as they get older, how the notion of what’s “cool” evolves over time, and what it means when the ink you adored as a 20-something loses its charm.

Austin-based psychotherapist and writer Jessica Grogan says, “Maybe an important part of attaining coolness in adulthood is moving past earlier definitions to something more expansive, something more like self-actualization.” For me, rejecting the tattoo I once loved could be a form of self-actualization, but could it also mean that I’m doing something that would devastate 22-year-old me? Could it mean that I’m selling out?

I talked to several women over 40 about their tattoos, and the majority of them don’t have any plans to remove them. Nancy Brennan, art director at Viking Children’s Books, got her first tattoo in 1989, and her most recent in 2017. She had a tattoo from her 20s reworked later in life, but she says, “I don’t regret it; it tells a story of that time of my life.” Natalie Elliott, a Texas high school teacher, described her changing view of what constitutes a “cool” tattoo: In her 20s every tattoo had to be literary or serious, and as she has gotten older she has come to believe that tattoos can be silly or humorous — or even ugly. It doesn’t all have to be doom and gloom and art. Maybe her self-actualization is about lightening up and becoming less serious with age, while mine is about admitting that the 22-year-old on Melrose in the 1990s didn’t know herself as well as she thought she did.

I don’t know when I’ll be able to get another treatment, but after the first few, the ink is slowly but surely vanishing from my skin. Part of me does feel guilty, and even a little bit sad, about erasing the naked tree angel that I once loved so much. You can’t erase people you dated, jobs you quit or ups and downs you had along the way, and what I’m realizing through this tattoo removal process — and through talking to other women about their own attitudes about their tattoos — is that even if you zap away the ink, that experience will always be a part of you.

Although you might be older or your tastes may have shifted, you’re still the same person you were when the needle etched your skin. So maybe I’m not rejecting that 22-year-old on Melrose and her decisions. Maybe I’m just entering a new phase. One where I won’t have to spend hours Googling “sexy full back one-piece bathing suit.” One where I can feel, if not cool, then comfortable in my own skin.