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Considering a new tattoo? Here are tips to avoid long-term tattoo regret

Editorial note: an earlier version of this article was first published on April 15, 2009. It was updated on July 30, 2020.

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When most people start fantasizing about their next cool, new tattoo, their minds are usually far from the thought of tattoo removal. Nevertheless, the vast majority of people who do get inked regret their choice later. Even if it’s just for some tattoos, or ones they can live with, there is usually some wish that they hadn’t done it.

And, this regret factor is not always because the tattoo starts to look bad on sagging skin, or that it fades. Some symbols and artwork are just not representative of who people are anymore.

In worse-case scenarios, tattoo ink can be made of dangerous chemicals, or applied incorrectly. Infections and unsightly effects can also lead to regret, of course.

Below are our tips for avoiding tattoo regret, if you do plan on getting a new tattoo.

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Avoid simplified symbols, hieroglyphs and logos, no matter how much they mean, or don’t mean to you right now

Cultural tribal tattoo design on leg being examined on a couch

Everything from known gang symbols to hieroglyphs that were not fully understood in advance can make a person feel insecure about their body’s artificial marks. We’ve had people come to our laser clinic saying they’re no longer associated with a former lifestyle, and want a related tattoo removed.

Some of these markings can have cultural references, or they may have a history associated with them, that you may not identify with later. Worse: they may be adapted by new groups, and then take on popular, other meanings in the future.

For example, think of the swastika. Originally, it was positively associated with fertility and well-being. It is also used as a religious symbol for Hindus. Then, bad people ‘took it over’ and used it while committing horrific acts. Now it’s incomprehensible to want to promote the use of it (for most people).

To use a not-so-terrible example, the same can be said of the rainbow. Twenty years ago, a rainbow might have connotated little more to someone than a folktale story or choice of colour palette (especially in say, little girls’ clothing). These days, it is popularly understood to be part of the gay pride movement.

So, it doesn’t have to be a bad adaptation per se. But the point is this: the meaning of symbolic references can change over time. The very simple ones are especially prone to this.

Some symbols can also be used as logos or institutional marks. For example, the military l community may use symbols commonly within their organization, even though the general public doesn’t understand them the same way. This happened to someone who got a tattoo indicating military rank, without realizing it. He says he felt like a poser afterwards.

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Think twice about cultural tattoos and tattoos written in languages you don’t speak

Tattoo on back of neck with gradation of colour representing tattoo removal steps

It’s nothing new to see people use cultural references in incorrect or racist ways. However, these days, the idea of cultural appropriation is something society is more sensitized to. We won’t get into where the line is drawn between appreciating culture and degrading it. But we will say this: it’s bound to raise controversy. It can be controversial in destroyable clothing or signs alone, let alone permanently-placed tattoos!

For example, this news story of a person who wore a “Caucasians” t-shirt to parody the Redskins logo can tell us a lot about what happens when you adopt cultural symbols, or make cultural remarks about a group of people – regardless of your intentions. Many people consider the Redskins name and logo to be harmless. Others feel it is racist. In his case, people were offended by the sarcasm in the statement his shirt was making. Either way, it creates arguments.

Now, when it comes to tattoos, there can be popular trends towards using tribal symbols or cultural art from history, and around the world. Some people like imprinting words written in languages they don’t speak.

The problem is: these types of artwork or calligraphy can carry nuanced meaning. That meaning may not be ‘cut-and-dry’ outside their originating cultures or languages. Just like with symbols, you may find out later that they mean something you don’t want to be associated with. Or, they may cause offense to other people, which you’ll inevitably have to address.

At their most harmless level, they could just be ‘trendy,’ which may be your reason for choosing them. Trends can soon go out of style. Artwork chosen for this reason probably won’t carry value to you over time. Having them permanently placed on your body can be harder than changing a shirt to solve that problem!

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Say no to lover’s names in tattoos

Forever tattoo on buttocks with black background - woman wearing undewear

We see this all too often: people come into our clinic wanting to have an ex’s name removed from their body. You know the saying, “love is blind”? Our advice is this: don’t let blindness convince you to get a person’s name engraved on your body!

Many marriages end in divorce, and that’s not counting the many partnerships that come and go in this world. So, while you may feel like you’ve found your soulmate, trust us; there are better ways to express love than by branding one another with name tattoos.

In fact, tattoo artists know this, too. Some even call it a ‘curse’ to get a lover’s name written in tattoo ink on a person. They themselves may advise against it.

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Choose your tattoo location carefully; consider who will see it, and how often

Face tattoo with fence prison scene black and white photo

Let’s not deny that while this perception may have changed over time, people with tattoos can be stereotyped. It can be harder to get a job when you have a tattoo, or to be seen as ‘wholesome,’ when you want to project that image.

Of course, we are definitely not saying that people with tattoos are not wholesome or are somehow ‘bad.’ Not at all! We’re just saying that the stereotype exists ‘out there.’ And that can be hard to battle for your whole life ahead of you.

So, if you do get a tattoo, consider where you’re having it placed on your body. An inconspicuous area may be best, so that you can easily ‘cover up’ when you need to.

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Investigate the aftereffects of ink colour and fading tendencies

no treatment with enlighten laser tattoo removal in surrey - back butterfly before photo
Tattoo before laser removal treatments with the enlighten® laser. This tattoo looks like many others, but its ink resided deeper in the dermis, requiring low energy, but long wavelengths, which this picosecond laser can do.

Not all tattoos are created with high-quality methods. The depth that ink is inserted into the dermis, as well as the ink itself, can vary greatly. There is hardly any regulation in the industry.

Pigments used in tattoo artistry can be derived from almost any source, even carcinogenic ones. And often, tattoo artists themselves don’t really know what’s in their inks. Sure, they may have a reputable source for supplying their ink. But it’s unlikely that they were watching the ink being made, to know for sure that it’s safe.

So, on the one hand, some tattoos can fade more easily, depending on how deeply they were inserted into the skin. The concentration of pigments counts, too. You’ll want to do your research on this subject before you get a tattoo.

Some areas of the body are also prone to fading tattoos. This can happen on thinner areas of skin, where there is not much to ‘hold in’ the ink.

Apart from safety and ‘looks,’ another major consideration is how easy a tattoo can be to remove. That is, if you do develop remorse about it later. The more pigmented, colourful and deep your tattoo is, the harder it will be to have it erased by laser (which is, by far, the most modern way to get rid of unwanted tattoos).

Also, some colours are not as easy to target with laser tattoo removal. Blacks and blues are darker, which of course attracts more light by a laser’s energy. Red is also easy to treat (there are lasers that are used for this specific colour in the skin). But other hues, such as green, can be difficult, and require different techniques to remove. That can be more costly, too. Colours like sky blue, white and pastels can be nearly impossible to get rid of.

So, be on the safe side, and choose tattoo colours that can be absorbed by laser light, juuuust in case you end up needing this type of treatment.

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Pick a good tattoo artist with a skilled, steady hand

Obscure tattoo on lower back with buttocks showing on the beach

There’s nothing worse than having an idea in your mind about what your tattoo will look like, only to find that your tattoo artist was an amateur, and didn’t paint your vision correctly.

A bad-looking tattoo can be horrible to live with. Imagine a peace symbol looking more like a fork and plate. Or, as one interviewee described in this article, an Aquarius symbol looking like a sperm.

If this happens to you, you may have to cover up your tattoo with a new design. Or, opt for laser tattoo removal. Either way, it won’t be cheap to fix. So you’d be better off going with the ‘best of the best’ to begin with, even if it is more expensive.

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Pick a hygienic tattoo parlour, and consider your health history

No treatment with picosecond tattoo removal in Surrey - patient had a reaction to the red ink and wanted it removed
No treatment with picosecond tattoo removal in Surrey – patient had a reaction to the red ink and wanted it removed

The process of getting a tattoo involves piercing your skin deeply. These punctures create wounds that your body needs to heal. However, as with any type of cutting or trauma to the skin, infections can happen. If your tattoo parlour is not properly sanitizing and disinfecting equipment, or just being careless, this can have very serious consequences for you.

Even when tattoo artists are following best-practices, your body may simply be one that does not heal easily. It may also be prone to developing scars. You should know these things about yourself, if you’ve been wounded before (even from acne, ear piercings, etc.). However, still, tattoo side effects can be hard to predict. Plus, young people who get tattoos may not be fully aware of how their body responds to these types of procedures.

Antibiotics and home hygiene can help to heal a tattoo, in time. However, some people end up with permanent, red reactions that stay in their skin, until removed by a laser. Others end up with scars, either indented or raised. The worst cases end up with long-term illnesses, such as HIV or hepatitis.

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If you’re planning to get a tattoo, it’s best to think before you leap

While we wouldn’t say that all tattoo procedures are dangerous, or that all people will regret tattoos, we can see that the data shows regret in many cases. Plus, the tattoo removal industry in itself is a burgeoning one, which can speak volumes to this issue.

As with any medicinal principle, we’d say that the best cure is prevention. You can do a lot to prevent regret – or even health issues – by being careful about your choice to get a tattoo. Think long and hard about whether you really want it, and what you’ll do if you end up not liking it anymore.

Moreover, be ready to address any health problems that arise from your tattoo. Ask your tattoo provider what they’ll do to help if this happens. You can also ask them for advice on ‘what’s next?’ if you end up not liking their artwork, or want to change it in the future. Then, don’t be afraid to ask them what’s in the tattoo ink they use. Look up those brands or ingredients, before having the procedure done.

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