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Tattoo Removal: A Bigger Business than Tattooing

04/26/2010 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

As tattoos become yesterday's style and employers are requiring tattoos to be "out of sight"; the price of making this colorful trend disappear is very painful and costly.

Making tattoos disappear is a multi-billion dollar business and growing. As unemployment continues to plague our economy and job hunters need to be competitive, covering-up or removing tattoos is becoming essential. And among those already working, many are being forced to hide their permanent colorful skin decorations as a way to maintain a professional image. Many others who are tattooed are not motivated by professional concerns, but by personal taste. They may have simply fallen out of love with their tattoos or out of love with the name of the person indelibly inked on their skin.

Even employees who would choose to flaunt their tattoos at work and still adore them are finding that the rules of business are becoming strict when it comes to appearance. More businesses are forcing their employees to hide their tattoos with clothing, bandages or cover-up. For example, this is the rule at Pier 1 Imports, and Bath & Body Works, where employees can be fired for exposing their tattoos.

It is expected that law firms and upscale retailers might not want their workers to flaunt their tattoos, but this is the case even in the more untraditional professions such as cheerleading where the style and policy has swung back towards a natural skin image. The Cleveland Cavalier Dancers and the Buffalo "Jill" Cheerleaders both have an "official cover-up" for their tattoos---SmartCover.

The numbers are staggering. According to John Keefe, CEO of Dr. Tatoff, an LA-based tattoo removal clinic, more than 40 million people have tattoos and 17% are in the process of figuring out how to get rid of them. "More than 66 percent of those tattooed are between the ages of 25 and 45 and what was cool to them at 18 is an eye sore now that they are a mother with kids" says Keefe.

Of course, another major problem is that, very often, those very people that like having tattoos don't want the name of a former lover staring into the face of a new romantic interest. "Tattoos of former boyfriends or girlfriends can be a real turn-off to those trying to change their life and move on", says Nancy Roberts, CEO of SmartCover.com, which features a cover-up formulated for tattoos and scars.

The permanent way to remove tattoos is through a lengthy laser process. This is immensely lucrative and popular for the businesses offering these services, but the cost is a function of the expertise, high-tech equipment, and the time that it takes to remove even the smallest tattoo. "It costs ten times more to remove a tattoo than to put one on and it takes one year for safe and effective removal," says Keefe.

The cost is $40 per square inch per laser treatment with an average of ten treatments required. Given that the average tattoo is 4 square inches, the average cost per tattoo runs $1,600.

Based on ink, body location and skin type, every removal process is different and can have differing success rates. Over the period of the one year, the tattoo slowly fades away. Dr. Will Kirby, D.O. and board certified dermatologist, uses a machine that "enters the skin and, without damaging the non-tattooed skin, targets and destroys foreign objects; namely the ink."

According to Roberts, dermatologists often combine the use of cover-up during this drawn out removal process.

Dr. Tatoff, which currently operates three clinics in the Los Angeles area, is planning to become a publicly traded company and that will trade on a market exchange such as NASDAQ. "We anticipate being publicly traded during 2010 and having close to 10 locations operational or in the start-up phase by then." This makes sense given the magnitude of the money-making opportunity. According to Keefe, there are 7 million people wanting to remove their tattoos and, given that the cost will run more than $1,500 each, then this could easily be more than a $10 billion industry.

The national market is currently served by a fragmented market of dermatologists operating on a one-off basis and usually not dedicating their entire practice to tattoos removal.

For now, the cover-up industry numbers are also growing at a meteoric rate. According to Roberts, sales ofSmartCover.com, which is internet based, have soared three fold from 2007 to present. Perhaps the reason stems from the fact that there are many who actually love their tattoos but just need to cover them for interviews, client presentations, or to abide by corporate rules.

Laurie Ten Eyck, an advertising executive in New Paltz, NY, says that she is very happy with her tattoos, and that they represent her "own a personal expression". However, she explains that "people have negative stereotypes of tattoos because they are seen as unprofessional and not classy and I don't want anyone to judge me on my tattoos". Ten Eyck's answer is to wear long sleeves and to use cover-up when on the areas that can't be covered by clothing.

The same situation applies to John Quinn, a senior partner with Synergy Home Care of Shrewsbury, NJ. Quinn has two large tattoos of his children's zodiac symbols. His tattoos remind him of his young children and he wouldn't want to remove them, but he does need to cover them up when meeting with his clients. "I need to have a professional image and even in my field, I can be judged by the ink on my skin and I can't afford to lose a client or assignment in this economy".

The tattoo removal business is growing exponentially as styles change, social norms are swinging backwards and job seekers find that they need to have every advantage in their court. In fact, just this month, a former employee of a Starbucks in Texas filed a suit claiming that he had a right to have a tattoo and that his termination was unfair. However, given the current environment, it may make more sense to just keep those colorful displays of individualism under wraps.

All of this boils down to the fact that many of the 40 million tattooed Americans will be turning to expensive laser surgery or a lifetime of cover-up. "Bottom line, people make mistakes at 18 years old that can't be forgotten or thrown out when their life, lovers and employment status changes," says Roberts.

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