Un-Getting a Tattoo

Self-portrait by Natalia Osiatynska taken with a Ricoh GR Digital 2 in 2010.

Self-portrait by Natalia Osiatynska taken with a Ricoh GR Digital 2 in 2010.

Self-portrait by Natalia Osiatynska taken in 2010 and modified in 2013.

Self-portrait by Natalia Osiatynska taken in 2010 and modified in 2013.

The decision to have a tattoo removed is a lot like the decision to get one in the first place. It assumes that one can know now what one will want in the future and it entails a willingness to suffer considerable cost and pain to do something permanent and chiefly aesthetic to one’s body. And it is a risky proposition, with the outcome of still-experimental laser procedures as tough to predict accurately as the product of a tattoo artist’s creative expression or how it will change over time.

When I was seventeen, what I wanted so badly wasn’t even a specific symbol or image of significance, but the mere fact of a tattoo. Indeed, I selected my rather basic “tribal” design from a catalog minutes before getting it put on my body. This was the mid-nineties, and I was probably the first of a generation for whom getting a tattoo really was no longer a truly counter-cultural thing (though we didn’t actually know it at the time). For a solid five years my tattoo was my bad-ass badge of honor. Then, for a few years, it was like a favorite piece of jewelry that’s worn more out of habit than for fashion’s sake. And for another half-decade, I loved my tattoo the way one loves a scar one has accepted, especially when I considered that my mom had been the one to go with me when I got it. And then one day, fourteen years after that visit she and I made to Tattoo Mania on Sunset Boulevard during a trip to LA, I suddenly couldn’t stand having this banal, passé monstrosity on my shoulder anymore. Whenever the clothes I had on or took off revealed any part of my tattoo, I felt as though I were unable to change out of an outfit of fishnets and Doc Martens, or to keep from broadcasting an embarrassing truth about my questionable past.

Over a couple of years I got to know the feeling of craving the clarity of a bare shoulder, the emptiness of plain skin, the notness of all that getting inked signifies. When I came under the care of Dr. Małgorzata Niemojewska, I was thirty-four and ready for the expensive, unpleasant and ultimately unpredictable treatment ahead. Still, the cost was prohibitive, the physical pain astonishing, the body’s reaction to the laser alarming, the inability to gauge the skin’s progress disconcerting. But what was so rewarding and utterly remarkable, from the first treatment onward, was the way I was no longer shy about revealing my still very visible tattoo. Because it now looked not like a tattoo I wanted, but like one I clearly didn’t want; its main message was no longer about my past, but about how different from it my present had become.

It has been nearly eighteen months since I got the first of my four laser treatments, and a ghost image remains, made in part of leftover black pigment and in remaining part of hypopigmented skin that may or may not gradually reabsorb a natural-looking level of melanin. My tattoo is no longer visible from under a sheer sleeve or from across a room or in dim light. I’m not sure how many further treatments I would need to obliterate it completely, or even if I have such a need. For now, I am as glad to have un-gotten my tattoo as I was once glad to have it, and I am interested in the ways my life is enriched by this apparent proof that there really exists a possibility of reversing permanence.