The Process of Tattoo Removal: Nothing is Truly Permanent

Erno Tattoo, San Francisco, early 90s
…so here's what we’re working with

Fun, Fun, Fun With a Giant Laser Gun

Lasers were just coming onto the removal scene and shops were opening up in strip malls all over the place. It didn’t seem like it took much to get in the biz. Just purchase a big expensive laser, get an M.D. to put his name on the business (they don’t even need to ever be there), and then hire some estheticians to fire the gun. There wasn’t nearly as much info on the web back then as there is now, not to mention reviews. I read all I could get my hands on and went in for my evaluation. The good news was that my ink was all black — the easiest color to remove since the absorption spectra are best suited for the emission spectra of most lasers. The bad news was that I had a ton of dense, professionally applied, deep ink that would take many treatments to get rid of.

When Coherent Light Meets Skin

I decided to commit and made my first appointment. My girlfriend at the time came with me for moral support. The nurse gave us our protective laser-proof eyewear and I settled into what looked like a dentist’s chair. She held the gun over my arm and began to pulse the laser. Within the first five seconds, I was afraid I’d made a terrible mistake. The pain was unbearable. I can only describe it as being stabbed by tiny lightsabers hundreds of times per minute. Being burned by a giant laser felt just even worse than I could have imagined.

Likely the same laser used by the Empire for the Death Star

Is Someone Burning Something?

My girlfriend said that each time the 3mm beam spot of the laser struck the pigmented skin, that section would blossom like popped corn. She noted that the smell of burning flesh in the treatment room was vomit worthy. Somewhere around the 40-minute mark, I completely lost consciousness. I’m not sure if they noticed that I was totally checked out, but I have no memory of the end of the session or leaving the clinic. I think my central nervous system simply said “enough is enough” and pulled the plug on my general awareness. Both arms were badly swollen under the layers of gauze and I went to bed as soon as I got home. I was scheduled to leave on a 6 AM flight for an interview on the east coast and was now deeply regretting my ambitious scheduling.

The Aftermath & Recovery

I woke up at one in the morning sweating uncontrollably with a high fever. I turned on the lights to discover I had bled through my bandages and shirt and onto the sheets. I still had a fever when I boarded the plane and fell asleep quickly. I awoke to the woman next to me letting me know that I had spilled something on the sleeve of my jacket. I glanced over to find that I had bled through my gauze bandages, ace bandages, dress shirt, and finally onto my light-colored suit jacket. In spite of the stains and dementia, I nailed the interview and got the job.

The “weeping” which would go on for days after a treatment
The morning after treatment underneath the compression bandages

All Things Come to an End

I ended up moving to San Jose for a couple of years and continued treatments in a laser clinic up there. This one was a legit medical center and things seemed to progress a bit faster. It didn’t bleed or scab so much with the lasers they were using, or maybe it was just the settings on the machine, the skill of the nurse technician, or that I had less ink on my arms at that point. Sometimes a couple of months would go by in between treatments, just because it took that long to psych myself up to get back in the chair. One of the crazy things about laser removal is that the results continue for weeks or months after treatment. Once the pigment is obliterated into tiny fragments, it just continues to fade for quite some time. I lost track of how many sessions I went in for. I think it was around 15 to 20.

I miss your tattoos, Daddy.



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Elijah Szasz

Elijah Szasz


Elijah runs a LA/SLC creative agency focused on the good side of technology. He’s also a mediocre athlete, father, and entrepreneur.