By Thomas Cunningham
The pain is making him anxious. He lies there, not knowing exactly what’s going on, with what feels like hundreds of elastic bands snapping on his face in quick succession.
Gold Coast man Aaron Bremner knows this sensation all too well. He has already undergone eight sessions of tattoo removal on his face, which has taken more than two years. With two more sessions to go until his face is completely clear, he already looks unrecognisable when compared to the Aaron of two years ago.
As the popularity of tattooing increases in Australia (a 2016 McCrindle Research survey has shown 28 per cent of Australians under 35 have a tattoo), the business of removal has also boomed. The McCrindle survey said a quarter of those tattooed have a tattoo they regret to some extent.
One of the people at the forefront of this trend is Mike Driver, who at 29 already owns and oversees six removal studios Australia wide. He is responsible for Aaron’s drastic facial change.
Speaking at his Collingwood store in Melbourne’s inner-north, Driver describes his own demoralising experiences of tattoo removal, which inspired him to open his own studio.
Having to travel from the Gold Coast, where he grew up, to a hospital in Lower Templestowe, Victoria, he says he felt uncomfortable dealing with hospital staff unaware of the tattoo culture he came from. One nurse, he says, once called him an idiot to his face for wanting a tattoo lightened so he could re-tattoo over it later.
Many of those with tattoos regret are unlikely not have to face the same discrimination now, as over the last five years an influx of removal studios have popped up, particularly in Melbourne where laws are more relaxed, Driver says.
Being in the business for around six years, he has seen a slew of different tattoos people want to have removed – from bikie insignia and swastikas, to 16 year-old boys with “home jobs” they did while drunk. For his client Aaron, the judgment he faced in everyday life was the biggest motivated him to get the tattoos removed.
From people being intimidated by you on the street, to being knocked back for jobs, and even women not wanting to take you home to their parents – Aaron, who now works as a scaffolder, says there were many drawbacks. Even when he did find work, he realised it would be impossible to move up within that business with his appearance the way it was.
“You could be the best worker on the job but, at the end of the day, they’d see that image and not want to be attached to it,” he says.
It hasn’t all been negative. Aaron recalls the time he was hired as a security guard based on the fact he had facial tattoos. Some people were drawn to his image, wanting to be seen with the kinds of people who are covered head (literally) to toe in tattoos.
The tattoo industry is experiencing a cultural shift, with tattoos no longer seen as permanent.
Jane Laver, who co-owns Chapel Tattoo in Windsor and has 21 years experience as a tattooist, has noticed the change in her customers.
“We have people coming in now saying, oh we’ll just get it lasered in a couple of years,” she says.
Her shop will often recommend to those people that they not get tattooed in the first place.
Despite her belief that removal has possibly had a negative effect on tattoo culture, Chapel Tattoo is one of the few studios that offer in-house removal as one of its services. This, she says, has been a beneficial venture, as some clients will get a tattoo removed then cover-up the remnants with a new tattoo at her shop.
Laver says she offers quality tattoo removal, which is hard to come by, as lax state laws make it easier for anyone with the money for the machinery to start a business.
The process of becoming a qualified tattoo removalist varies from state to state as laws differ across the country. Driver has to contract doctors in his Western Australian branch, as they are the only ones legally allowed to administer the laser treatment. While in Melbourne he is forced to set his own guidelines for his employees because legislation on the profession is lacking in Victoria. This, he says, is one of the biggest problems facing the industry today. Improper treatment can leave scarring on the body, trapping the ink inside the skin, making it almost impossible to remove further.
Despite these risks, finding a good tattoo removalist can provide renewed confidence and a new lease on life for some clients. Aaron says since having his tattoos removed he has noticed how much more readily people will approach him and how he’s even getting a lot more looks from women.
“I’ve shown people photos of how I used to look and they’ve told me they probably would never had approached me if I still looked like that,” he says.
Although, he adds, the experience has taught him to look deeper into a person’s character rather than their appearance. He admits he is even intimidated sometimes when he sees someone with face tattoos now.
Driver says it is rewarding to see people get new tattoos over the old, now removed, images. “To see something that was either really bad or affecting someone in a really negative way turned into something they can be proud of is really satisfying for everyone involved.”
Driver says that the speed at which the technology is advancing, tattoo removal is only going to become quicker and easier for clients looking to zap away their regret.