Erasing regret, one dot at a time
This is where mistakes go to die. Or at least to cease proclaiming themselves publicly.
On the fifth floor of a nondescript Downtown Crossing building, Rob Harris runs Disappearing inc., a cheery tattoo removal outfit. The whole world passes through his doors, and with it, a vast catalog of very human errors.
Harris is an expert on regret. He’s also pretty knowledgeable on the impetuousness of youth, the transience of love, and the transformative effect of children, career aspirations, and mornings after.
We all make mistakes. Who among us hasn’t gotten sozzled in Philadelphia and tried to convince her future ex-husband that we could not endure one more minute without matching tattoos declaring our undying love? (He demurred, bless him.)
If we’re lucky, most of us get to move on from our blunders. We quit being devoted to the wrong people. We start thinking about the future. We leave our younger, more reckless, and yes, sometimes stupid, selves behind.
Unless, of course, we have immortalized said selves in ink. Some people’s missteps are literally written on their bodies: That night in Vegas when you were so wasted you remember nothing after you demanded the flaming dice on your chest; the time you tried to memorialize your late friend but chose a tattoo artist who made her look painfully cartoonish; that year you got the stars inked down your neck because that’s what your then-role model Rihanna did.
“When I was 13, I had some awesome posters in my room,” Harris said, “and I look back with much fondness on those, it’s part of who I was.” But his fervor for Farrah Fawcett faded, as it did for so many of us, eventually. He rolled up her frosted blond gorgeousness and put it away.
But some of his clients are still carrying around their versions of that Farrah poster at 40 and 50. That’s where he and his laser come in. It costs about 10 times more to get a tattoo taken off than to get it in the first place. Treatments cost between $90 and $450 a session, depending on the size of the tattoo. And it might take as many as a dozen sessions.
Still, the tattoo removal business is booming, and growing. Harris, a Wharton grad who left a career in marketing and fund-raising to catch the wave, just opened another Disappearing inc. with his wife Eve, in Framingham. Along the way, he’s gotten his own beautiful tattoos, and knows first-hand how addictive they can be.
Harris has been in the business for just under two years, but already, he has seen a lot. Tattoo removal has many life lessons to teach. For example:
1. Love is fleeting OK, this is obvious. But you wouldn’t know it from the many former loved-ones’ names Harris erases. One of his clients had her ex-boyfriend’s name tattooed across her back along with: “I heart Mista Bang-Bang.” It would have been cheaper and less painful for her new paramour to start going by “Mista Bang-Bang,” but apparently he wasn’t into that. So, off it came. Another client and her ex got small matching tattoos on the sides of their fingers. Hers was supposed to say “Him,” and his was supposed to say “Her,” but they came out more like “Kim” and “Ken” (See 5, below). Even a tiny tattoo can start to burn when you break up with somebody. “I thought it was discreet,” she says. “It’s awkward for my current boyfriend.”
2. Hardly anybody stays a rebel forever. We can’t all be Iggy Pop. When you’re not yet 20, getting an infinity sign tattooed on your middle finger to enhance your obscene gesture-making capacity can make sense: “I was rebelling against the world,” said Taylor, 21, who was having that finger treated on a recent Monday. “Eventually, you grow out of those youthful phases.” She had the infinity sign covered with a spade, and the spade covered with a diamond. She ended up with a big black blob. Though she loves her other, elaborate, tattoos, she works with her hands, and the finger-blob has to go.
3. Satanism isn’t always practical. When you’re in your late teens and touring with a rising band, you don’t worry about whether your tattoos will limit your career options. So Ryan Baker, who was with Die Another Day for a time, went for it, getting many tattoos, most of them for free. He regrets none of them, except the crest of Lucifer by his right eye, the satanic cross by his left, and the “FROM HELL” on his knuckles. His very religious father was not amused by those. It took Baker a little longer to realize band life wasn’t for him, the prince of darkness wasn’t all that, and prospective employers might be put off by the occult. “All of a sudden, the jobs are starting to matter,” he said.
4. Never on the face. “Face tattoos are always a mistake,” Harris said. Unless you’re Maori and it’s part of your culture. Or unless you know for sure that you will never, ever change your mind as long as you live (If that’s you, see 1, 2 and 3). Or unless you’re willing to wear one of those creepy balaclava masks year-round.
5. Sometimes, “tattoo artist” is a loose term. “About 20 percent of the tattoo artists out there are doing 80 percent of the great work, and the rest are just OK,” Harris said. Sometimes the just OK ones misspell words. Sometimes they make your loved ones look like ghouls. Sometimes they add antennae that ruin your beautiful butterfly. Sometimes they are not good with punctuation and they put extra commas in the line from “The Odyssey” they’ve inked on your arm, and, because you are a professional proofreader, this makes you insane.
All of these people have found their way to Harris’s door, and he has set them free.
“It’s about turning the page,” he said.