Erasing a Tattoo Mistake

Tattoos are less permanent than they used to be. Advances in laser technology, lightening ointments, and cover-ups have allowed people who made bad decisions about tattoos to remove them or change them. The philosopher in me goes back and forth about whether this shift in what was once considered to be a vital characteristic of the tattoo–it’s lasting power–is a positive development in the history of tattooing. I got my early tattoos deeply believing they would be there forever. Although some of them I would not choose today, I am at peace with all of them, even those that have not aged well or that no longer reflect my personality. Except for one. One of my tattoos I have come to hate. I no longer want it on my body. It currently looks like this:

This is not an out-of-focus picture!

Ugh. This amorphous black blob is the result of a spur-of-the-moment tattoo decision, made in 1991 when I was 19. It was tattooed on a part of my body (my stomach) that was ill-chosen for a design that required the preservation of negative space over time. Weight gain and loss over the years caused my skin in this area to really bleed the pigment around, and poor technique when the tattoo was applied accelerated the ink migration. This tattoo was inscribed in the era when needles would be re-used (sterilized, at least, in my case–one of the few things I thought to ask about in my impulsive days), leading to poor pigment placement and the increased likelihood of blowout. Hence, a faded black mush. For fun, before you scroll down and read about what this image is supposed to be, vote what you think it is! (And feel free to add your own guesses in the poll comments.)


I recently was offered the chance to try out one of the new tattoo removal creams, Trufade, and I jumped at the opportunity. Despite my initial belief that tattoos should be forever, I’ve long considered laser removal for this one tattoo only. However, the cost has kept me from booking a set of appointments–the tattoo isn’t hurting anything, so it has stayed. I’ve also heard that laser removal is more painful than the actual process of tattooing, and although I have no problem with weathering some pain, that also has helped to put removing this tattoo on the back burner. But the idea of a cream that I could do at home piqued my interest. As a tattoo historian, I’m well-familiar with some of the historical tattoo-removal potions, like the ancient Roman recipes found in the writings of Aetius. So I’m intrigued by the concept of a modern formula that will disperse the pigment.

Tracking the history of one tattoo on your body is a fascinating visual project. I only have one other picture of this tattoo taken in 2006 when I first taught my social-science survey of tattoo culture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I thought a better way to introduce my students to my own tattoo history would be through a picture slideshow of all my ink, rather than a classroom striptease! Little did I know those pictures would serve as a useful documentation of how my tattoos have aged over time. Even a decade ago, this tattoo had gone quite blurry.

It’s remarkable how much the pigment migrated over the past decade, although pregnancy probably really moved the ink particles around

So what *was* the inspiration for this tattoo? In 1990, having just graduated high school, I was working in a new-age bookstore in Salem, MA, near where I grew up. I got a discount on books, and one of the interesting ones that I picked up was a children’s book about a Northwest Coast spider-woman legend with some lovely illustrations and a book cover in my favorite color. It just popped into my head that the cover image would make a nice tattoo–a spider dangling from my bellybutton. During summer break from college the next year, my friends and I went to get more tattoos. And so I got this, and also got the band logo for Einstürzende Neubauten elsewhere on my body (these two tattoos might tell you a lot about me at the time!). It did look great when it was first rendered. Believe it or not, all the negative space in the original image was present in the original tattoo (you can kind of see the empty space still in the back of the hand on the right).

Beyond how terribly this tattoo has aged there’s another reason I’d like to remove it: it ventures into cultural appropriation. Some of my other tattoos reflect cultures whose heritage is not part of my blood, but in those cases I feel I can make an argument for a legitimate connection (for example, travel or deep research). With this one, I just can’t justify it. It was a cool image I saw on a book cover. I have no connection to Northwest Coast indigenous culture other than owning this book. I’m not going to fault my 19-year-old artsy self for making the decision to get this design tattooed, but my 45-year-old, PhD-cultural-studies-steeped self knows better than to be wearing this image on my body. I’m happy to have the chance to make this right by removing it.

Now, the downside to tattoo removal creams is that they take a long time to work and must be applied twice a day, every day. I have no idea if this will actually erase this tattoo, but I’m excited to try the experiment. This has also piqued my interest to write a longer article about historical tattoo removal techniques and formulas. Stay tuned…


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