It started last summer at a wedding, when I caught myself fixating on many of the women who chose to wear spaghetti-strap dresses. I love the look of an exposed back — but it’s not one I’m comfortable partaking in, thanks to the devil on my shoulder.
The devil in question is a 20-year-old hand-sized tattoo coverup on my left shoulder blade. It’s of a cartoony Asian doll with a Japanese maple on its torso. It can best be described as culturally insensitive, not to mention terribly executed.
I found the image on an album cover for some house music DJ — and decided in a moment that that’s what I was going to cover up the original tattoo, which I’d gotten illegally at the age of 15.
There was no deep reason behind the choice at the time, other than I thought it cute and it had enough blackened areas to hide the original one. That tattoo, my first, was a Chinese character, which the flash sheet at the tattoo parlour said meant “To be lost." I found out a few weeks after getting it permanently inscribed on my skin that it actually meant “To rest after a long day” when a curious Chinese-speaking shopkeeper inquired about it.
While I’m not insecure about my figure, over the years I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable when exposing my back and have done my best to hide it at all costs. I wear T-shirts instead of tanks at the gym and have invested hundreds of dollars in modest bathing suits with wide necklines.
It’s come to the point where even glancing at my back after taking a shower fuels me with misery. So I decided to take action and finally look into tattoo removal. If you're looking for more information on tattoo removal in Canada, read on.
What are the options for tattoo removal in Canada?
There were a few routes I could take to get rid of my back tattoo: Get another, larger cover up or start the process of laser tattoo removal. There's a third option I wasn't a candidate for — which is having the tattoo surgically removed.
According to Dr. Jamil Ahmad, a member of the Canadian Society of Plastic Surgeons and surgeon at Toronto’s Plastic Surgery Clinic, this is an option for people with small tattoos.
“It involves cutting out the inked skin, and can only be performed with a tattoo of a certain size and shape,” he said. “The patient is left with a scar.”
This procedure didn’t appeal to me; namely because it would have cost me to consult with a surgeon, I didn’t want a scar, my tattoo was too big and there was little dialogue or forums about this form of tattoo removal online.
An even larger cover up wasn’t in the cards for me either because I swore after my last one (yet another coverup of a tattoo I got in my teens) I was truly tapped out from getting any more.
What to know about laser tattoo removal in Canada
That meant that laser tattoo removal would be the way to go for me.
Laser tattoo removal is a procedure that is becoming increasingly mainstream. In the last few years, celebrities like Pete Davidson and Blac Chyna have been open about documenting (and in some cases, monetizing) the experience, which is long, painful and expensive.
In researching potential places in Toronto to start the process, it soon became apparent that the laser tattoo removal industry is a bit like the Wild West. The was a vast range of options and prices — from medispas that offered bundled packages to tattoo parlours that priced based on length of sessions or the size of the tattoo. Some places charged $200 flat rate per session, others charged $1,400.
Rachel Wong is the owner and technician of Lazy Sunday, a tattoo removal service located in Markham, Ont. Though she works full time as a youth worker, she started her side business during the pandemic. She was inspired to venture into tattoo removal after many teens she counselled expressed regret and shame about their tattoos, and how they impacted their confidence.
So she invested in a laser, partnered up with someone she knew who had a tattoo parlour and set up shop.
Tattoo removal is a 'buyer beware' industry: Expert
Both Wong and Ahmad confirm my suspicions that the industry isn’t as regulated as other forms of body modification, like Botox or even ear piercing.
Health Canada has broad guidelines for the safe use of tattoo removal devices, and the devices themselves go through a relatively rigorous approval process before they can be brought to market, said Ahmad.
However there are no requirements in terms of the education and training for people who use them.
“Health Canada relies on manufacturers to train purchasers on the safe operation of their devices,” Ahmad says.
Find a tech who you’re comfortable asking questions to, before, during and after.Rachel Wong, Lazy Sunday tattoo removal
The Quebec College of Physicians has recently taken steps towards regulating the cosmetic laser industry. But in the rest of Canada, there's no regulation on who can operate these devices. That means anyone who can afford to buy the equipment can use it on others, regardless of their experience.
Wong, who did not treat me, confirms that the industry is very much “buyer beware." She recommended always asking about the laser technician’s credentials and experience.
“Find a tech who you’re comfortable asking questions to, before, during and after,” she said. “The average person doesn’t have a ton of knowledge about lasers. So make sure the person you find can close that knowledge gap and walk with you through the process and aftercare.”
How laser tattoo removal works
I ended up settling on a small clinic near my apartment in downtown Toronto that had flat rate pricing and hundreds of great reviews online. We set up an online consultation, where the clinician walked me through what to expect, in terms of realistic results, and how important aftercare was in the whole process.
The number of sessions is dependent on several factors — how deep and dark the ink is, the location of the tattoo, as well as skin tone.
The clinician explained that my procedure would take at least 10 sessions, at $200 a pop. It takes about two months to fully heal after a session, so the whole process would take more than a year. Since my tattoo is highly saturated, I was told to lower my expectations that it could be fully removed.
As for how the procedure works: The pigment in the tattoo absorbs the light coming from the laser. The energy from that process shatters the pigments into small enough fragments for the body to remove through the bloodstream.
Tattoo ink isn’t regulated in North America — so radiants that make up the ink can also vary, and some may be trickier to remove than others.
Wong tells her clients that it’s a team effort. She’s responsible for setting the laser with a balance of safety and efficacy, making sure the setting is right to remove the most amount of ink but also taking into consideration the client's skin type and tone, so as not to burn them.
Clients are responsible for adhering to the aftercare process and taking good care of themselves.
It’s the immune system that takes away the ink after it has broken down, so the better those going through the process take care of themselves, the better they will heal. That means staying hydrated, exercising in order to promote circulation in the body and not smoking during the healing process.
What to expect from a laser tattoo removal session
What surprised me the most about the experience of tattoo removal was how nonclinical it all felt. My clinic was located in a tiny windowless room, slightly bigger than a closet, in a fancy office building in downtown Toronto. It had enough space for a small desk, a medical chair and the laser machine. While I’d envisioned my clinician wearing a sterile lab coat or something to that effect, instead she had on leggings, a tank top and platform sneakers.
I was instructed to sit on the chair, wear a pair of sunglasses and uncover my back. On the count of three, the clinician pointed the laser on my tattoo and started the procedure. At first it felt tolerable —-slightly more uncomfortable than getting a tattoo — but became increasingly more painful the longer it went on. I squeezed a stress ball I was given, and could smell the stench of burning flesh. Luckily, it took less than two minutes. The clinician explained that the procedure lasts about the same time it would take to run a highlighter over the tattoo.
She bandaged up my back, which she instructed me to remove in a few hours so that the skin could dry out. I was given some aloe vera to apply twice a day, and instructed to stay hydrated, not take baths or go in hot tubs for a week, exercise and avoid wearing any undergarments that could rub against the skin. Unlike a tattoo, the healing doesn’t scab entirely. There was some blistering, redness, tenderness and intense itchiness for the first week or so, but my skin appeared healed up within 10 days.
I’ve had three sessions so far and there is some noticeable fading, especially with the red colouring. But the tattoo is still visible and I’ve resigned myself to the fact that removing it completely will take a lot of time and money.
I’m still relieved that there’s at least one option for me to work on changing a part of me that I strongly dislike — albeit an expensive, painful and very long term option. So for now, I’ll keep dreaming of a day where I can wear a spaghetti strap dress without shame and know that I'm slowly working towards that.