• Beth Johnstone

Tattoo Removal at 22


© Tattoo Removal Illustration by INJECTION - Alicia Lupieri


Removing tattoos in your early-twenties – my journey from embarrassed to empowered


Part of me feels like 2017 was a peak year for DIY, stick and poke tattoos – friends living in other cities around the UK agree that in 2014-17 everyone seemed to be doing it. Another part of me knows that it always feels like something has never been more popular when you’re the one doing it, and are surrounded by other people doing the same. Within two years, I’d given myself nine stick and poke tattoos, tattooed at least seven people (some of them multiple times) and had been tattooed in my living room by close friends (arty ones that knew what they were doing, thankfully) four times.


For a while, my dotty, prison-style tattoos felt aligned with my image – scruffy with hints of punk. But, unlike the tattoos I’d had done professionally at 18, my homemade skin scribbles didn’t fit my changing sense of style. Leaving university and entering the job market meant my appearance suddenly mattered a whole lot more, and this extra layer of stress on top of what’s already a scary and uncertain time meant my tattoos became a point of insecurity, even shame.


In 2019, at the age of 22, I decided I would begin the long process of removing the tattoos on my hands. Some of them had never felt particularly special. The fingers on my left hand were covered in simple black and red lines, a leaf and random combinations of shapes which felt ‘intuitive’ at the time, but were now meaningless. On my right thumb, however, a close friend had tattooed a beautiful, neat double spiral pattern, to represent renewal and rebirth after an emotionally challenging year. For my new, career-in-education-friendly look, tattoo-free hands were a must. This meant my beloved double spiral would have to go too.


The tattoo removal process takes months, and, in many cases, even years. A minimum of six to eight weeks must be left between each session, and removing a tattoo usually takes at least eight sessions. I had my first tattoo removal session in Glasgow, and was surprised by how minor the pain was. I later realised pain varies between sessions, depending on the strength of the laser and depth of the ink in your skin – on one particularly memorable occasion, I was left with aggressive blisters that didn’t settle for weeks.


My tattoos faded slightly in the weeks after my first round of laser treatment, but there was clearly still a long way to go, and I had to find ways to conceal them if I was going to get the kind of job I wanted. I don’t know what recruiters thought was wrong with my fingers – each one wrapped in a plaster – but it was never mentioned, and I found a job in education.


Every day before work, after moisturising and putting on make-up, I would sit and wrap each finger in a plaster. I went through a box of them a week, which seemed a small price to hide the sides of my past which I felt were made obvious by my tattoos, and that certainly weren’t compatible with my new life.


As time went on and the exhaustion of working my first long-term, 9 to 5 job set in, I inevitably slipped up and forgot to put on my daily plasters. Realising at work that I’d forgotten to apply them made my stomach drop, but nothing happened. People knew me now, and though it was eventually mentioned by a senior member of staff at the work Christmas party, for my last six months in the role I luckily got away with it.


© Beth's tattoos after 7 removal sessions, photograph by INJECTION - Beth Johnstone


Since then, I’ve ventured back into the creative industries on a full-time basis – does this mean the money I’ve spent on tattoo removal, and the pain of laser on skin (which is actually more bearable than many think), was completely pointless? For me it doesn’t. Although I still like tattoos, and am actually not opposed to the idea of having others done in the future, I’m a big advocate for tattoo removal now. We’re willing to pay hundreds of pounds to have them injected into our skin, having them removed shouldn’t be any different.


And yet it is. There seems to be a belief that having tattoos removed is an admission of failure – yes, elderly relatives, you did tell me. But the idea that removing some tattoos means getting any tattoos is a bad decision is narrow-minded and, for many of us, just not the case. Identity is fluid, and that the images on our skin can’t always keep up. Some things hold relevance, other don’t – this is true in all areas of life. That tattoo you just don’t like anymore? – get rid of it. And do so shamelessly.