She winced in pain as her body quivered at the first prick of the needle. But the 22-year-old Delhi girl couldn’t hide her excitement. A regular electric tattoo machine drives the needle attached to it into the skin at a rate of around 80-150 times a second, puncturing the epidermis and inserting the tattoo ink. She describes it as a series of injections received at once. “It hurts, particularly when [the tattoo artist] stops to take a break and start again,” she says, sipping the cold coffee her best friend brought her from the Dunkin’ Donuts outlet nearby to beat the heat of a sultry July afternoon in Delhi.
This is her fourth tattoo; only this one is a cover-up, meant to hide the name of her ex-boyfriend, which she had had tattooed on her right shoulder when she was 18. They had decided to get each other’s names tattooed together. “He backed out, but I got it anyway. It is something I do if the person means a lot to me,” she says. She had her grandfather’s name tattooed on her wrist after he passed away. She has another one—a butterfly—on her ankle, which she got along with her best friend in a twin-tattoo pact.
She broke up with her boyfriend of four years last year and has now decided to move on. After hours of contemplation and discussion with her tattoo artist, she settled for one angel wing to cover the tattoo on her right shoulder. “Everyone gets two wings; I am different,” she says. She recently completed a Masters in luxury brand management and is hoping to move to Hong Kong for a job soon.
While ‘moving on’ has been relatively simple in the Delhi girl’s case, her school friend, a 22-year-old aspiring actor, is having a tough time getting rid of two tattoos—one on his chest and another on his abs. He had his girlfriend’s name tattooed in both places as an 18-year-old, while still in school, and had them covered up after he broke up with her a couple of years later. All seemed fine till he won the reality show Superdude on Bindass, and decided to head for Mumbai to take up a career in acting. “I started missing out on opportunities during auditions because of the tattoos—eagle wings and a skull.”
He’s undergone two sittings of laser surgery to erase his tattoos, and has six more to go. “As if getting the tattoos and cover-ups wasn’t painful enough. This is worse,” he says, claiming he couldn’t kick himself enough for being so ‘silly’ at the time he got them. “But I did truly love her then,” he says helplessly.
As tattoos become increasingly popular among urban youth, with parlours mushrooming in every nook and corner of cities like Delhi, tattoo removals and cover-ups, too, are becoming quite common. Since it is usually young people, generally between the ages of 18 and 35, who opt for permanent markers, many come back regretting their tattoos.
Rationales for the removal of unwanted tattoos vary from sheer boredom to professional trouble, but the most popular, say tattoo artists, is a break-up.
“Often, you have young people getting tattoos—college kids saving up on their pocket money or young professionals who have recently started working,” explains tattoo artist Lokesh Verma, whose parlour Devil’z Tattooz is among the most popular in Delhi. “Since tattoos are about getting something important inscribed onto your skin in indelible ink, most of them [wind] up getting tattoos of names or portraits of people they are in love with,” he says.
A 23-year-old of Gorakhpur was so in love with his girlfriend while they were studying in Bangalore that, despite being strapped for cash, he decided to have her name tattooed on his arm. “Since I had [little] money, I went to a friend who would do tattoos using needles used to inject insulin,” he says. Unhappy with the shoddy job and unbearable pain, he later went to a professional to get it touched up at a cost of Rs 34,000—only to find his girlfriend packing her bags and leaving for her hometown. “Her father had passed away and she wanted to go back. She somehow decided that we couldn’t be with each other. I could never show her the tattoo,” he says. While the tattoo, in Japanese, remains on his arm, he hopes to have it taken off after getting a job.
But it’s not just young college kids blowing up money trying to impress people they are in love with. Celebrities in the public eye, too, have had trouble grappling with break-ups and tattoos. Actress Deepika Padukone was the first to make headlines in 2008 when she had an ‘R’ tattooed on her shoulder while dating actor and co-star Ranbir Kapoor. They later split. Last heard of, actor Prateik Babbar was looking at ways to get rid of an enormous forearm tattoo declaring his love for actress Amy Jackson he had done during their short-lived whirlwind romance that developed while they were shooting a movie together—she got one to match.
Hollywood, too, has its share of tattoo stories. Johnny Depp famously had one of his tattoos changed from ‘Winona Forever’ to ‘Wino Forever’ after breaking up with actress Winona Ryder. Angelina Jolie replaced a dragon tattoo on her upper left arm, a tribute to former husband Billy Bob Thornton, with the geographical coordinates of the birthplaces of her seven children.
“Living with an unwanted tattoo is the most difficult thing to do, particularly if it’s related to an ex, which is why I often counsel my clients when they come to me with such requests,” says Mumbai-based tattoo artist Kevin Andrade, who runs Pro in Andheri’s Lokhandwala area. Because Andrade has witnessed people breaking down in front of him over an unwanted tattoo, he takes care to chat with his clients before doing a tattoo that involves a lover or love interest. The rules are simple: don’t get such a tattoo, but if you do, get one in a bold, prominent font. “Many a time, people get a small initial in some obscure spot, often being unsure and doubtful. I tell them to be sure, and if they are, get it bigger. If they are getting it bigger, they should be absolutely sure of getting it in the first place,” says Andrade, who has a portrait of his wife on his arm. “I married her, so I am pretty sure,” he jokes.
His interest in counselling his clients, says Andrade, is prudential: why have to undo it? “They come back to me for a cover-up, which is doubly difficult because you have to make do with a design that is there already. It is restrictive and challenging,” he says, adding that he charges almost double the amount for a cover-up than for an original because of the sheer effort that goes into it.
Verma of Devil’z Tattooz agrees: “The cover up, too, has to look awesome because, as an artist, my reputation is at stake. People know us through our artwork and if a cover-up is shoddy, it reflects badly on me. I have to make sure that the cover-up is beautiful and does the job of hiding the previous tattoo. It is a new piece of work with several restrictions.”
One of the cover-ups done at Verma’s studio transformed the portrait of a girl on a client’s chest into a Guns N’ Roses emblem, complete with a skull. “Cover-ups are more challenging to do for boys,” says Andrade. “Girls can still make do with stars, flowers and butterflies, but we are always stuck with crosses and skulls for men,” he says.
The alternative to a cover-up is a laser surgery that can cost up to Rs 3,000-5,000 per sitting, depending on the original tattoo’s size and colours used. The laser procedure, done over several sittings, involves burning particles of pigment under the skin. Over the sittings, the tattoo gets lighter and lighter, and the particles eventually dissolve into the blood stream. “It is slightly painful and does leave a mark behind, [particularly] in the case of coloured tattoos,” says Dr Lokesh Kumar, a cosmetic surgeon at Apollo Hospital in Delhi. “The other alternative, of course, is a skin graft, but that leaves a prominent mark behind,” he says, noting that most of his clients are young girls about to get married.
Just the fact of getting a tattoo can sometimes backfire and cause a break-up, Andrade cautions from his experience with clients. “There was a case of a woman facing some marital trouble who had a tattoo done to re-assure her husband [of her love for him]. It backfired. He left her because he freaked out when he saw the tattoo,” Andrade says.
Something similar happened to a 29-year-old marketing professional in Bangalore, who has a 17-inch tattoo of his girlfriend’s name on his arm. “We had a long distance relationship because of our careers and I had one done just because I thought she would be closer,” he says. “But when I showed it to her, she freaked out. She also had [some] religious views about it and felt it was a bad omen. Soon, she broke up with me.” He is now, like so many others, looking at options for getting rid of the tattoo. “It has remained with me for a couple of years now, and my ex is set to get married in a few weeks. It is a part of me, so I am taking my time to remove it. I will, eventually.”