Tattoos: The needle and the damage done

Body art may be having a fashion moment, but 50 per cent of all those who submit themselves to the tattooist have second thoughts. Jessica Callan is one of them

Tattoos are big business. With celebrities dripping in them and their cool-value flying high, they're no longer the preserve of criminals and salty old sea dogs. But with permanent "body art" there comes a catch. A huge one, depending on the size of your tattoo. If you change your mind about it – fall out of love with that Tibetan symbol or split up with a lover whose name you had etched into your epidermis, say – that tattoo will suddenly look rather ridiculous.

Tattoo regret is the unfortunate side effect of body art, with around 50 per cent of people who have undergone the needle having second thoughts. Alan Jenkins, a steelworker, recently revealed that he had undergone 20 hours at his local tattoo parlour and spent £870 on having a life-size portrait of his girlfriend's face etched into his back. However, soon after, Lisa Crooks left him for a colleague. But despite the pain and humiliation of both the tattoo and being dumped, Alan is refusing to have it removed by laser, the most popular method of erasing tattoos. "It will be there for good, even if I meet someone else. I've got some room on my chest if I get hooked up with someone again." Has he not learnt his lesson?

I certainly have after having two tattoos, both of which I now dislike to the point of acute embarrassment. Thirteen years ago, when I was in my first year at university, I decided that I fancied a tattoo. But unlike my female friends who had more feminine tattoos such as flowers, a seahorse, rainbows and a ridiculous-looking Winnie-the-Pooh figure, I wanted to be different. So I went for a spider. To this day, I have no clue how I reached that decision, nor any understanding why it seemed like a good idea. I didn't think about it for long. A week later, I went to the tattoo store in the basement of the now-defunct Kensington Market on my own, dropped my jeans, lay face down on the table and told the tattooist to do his best on my bottom.

The 3in black tattoo took about 20 minutes. The loud buzz of the needle – it sounded like a dentist's drill – was actually worse than any pain. It felt like someone lightly scratching me with his fingernail over and over again. And, of course, with the derrière being the fleshiest part of the body, I had plenty of cushioning so it was pretty much pain-free.

I attempted to show it to my horrified mother, who refused to look at it. My father approved of it but said: "You should have told me you were having it done – I would have lent you my signet ring so you could have had the family crest done instead." Apart from this not being the reaction I had expected from my father, it struck me what a good idea that would have been. Our family crest is a griffin, the half-lion, half-eagle mythological creature. Again, not exactly girlie, but it had more meaning than my spider.

And so started my feelings of regret about the tattoo. Why hadn't I thought this through properly? Luckily, as it was on my behind, I wasn't reminded of my mistake on a daily basis. I'd had it done low down on my right cheek, so when I wore a bikini, it would be visible. I endured 11 years of jokes every time I was in a swimsuit from people trying to swat my spider. I considered removal but felt that, as I had known full well that tattoos are permanent, it would be my punishment for being too impulsive. Most of the time I forgot it was there.

But in January 2006, while travelling in New Zealand, I decided to get my spider tattoo covered up with another one. This time I knew what I wanted. I printed off a picture of a griffin from the net, found a tattoo shop and booked myself in for an £80 session for the next day. The tattooist showed me the transfer he had done of the picture. It was huge.

"To keep all this wonderful detail in the wings, it has be this size," he said.

"But it's as big as the palm of my hand! It'll take up a fair chunk of my bottom!" I pointed out. He shrugged and told me to keep it big. So I went for it. This time it was much more painful and took more than an hour. The outline felt as if the tattooist was using a razor blade on me. When he was finished, he took a photo for his book, then led me to a full-length mirror to show me his handiwork. It was fantastic, with intricate detail and lots of shading, but far bigger than I'd expected, despite my pleas to keep it as dainty as possible. I realised, with horror, that the griffin looked like something out of Harry Potter.

By the time I returned to London, I had talked myself around and decided that I loved my new tattoo. I duly showed it to my father.

"Well, that's marvellous, Jessica, but it's the wrong sort of griffin," he said.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Why didn't you ask me to send you a photo of my signet ring? Not all griffins are the same. They all have different heraldic value. Oh dear... You've really ballsed it up, haven't you? Let's ring your brother and tell him!" he laughed.

Tattoo regret is, sadly, very common. But it could soon be a thing of the past. Doctors in Boston have come up with a permanent but ultimately removable tattoo ink that harnesses the microencapsulation technology already used in drug delivery and scratch-and-sniff perfume samples. It uses a system of polymers and dyes, so that, in the event of tattoo regret, lasers can burst the polymer beads and the ink will degrade.

But I'm stuck with a tattoo that makes me look like a walking ad for the old Midland Bank. I looked into laser removal, but because of the size of my tattoo, it would be expensive as I'd need up to 10 sessions, which could damage my skin and leave me with blisters, scabs and scarring, and the effectiveness of the removal can't be guaranteed, so I'd rather not take the risk.

For the time being, I am left with an even bigger tattoo I don't want. My boyfriend delights in telling me how much I will embarrass future grandchildren with the grotesque tattoo on what will one day be my wrinkly backside.

But it could be worse, I suppose. I could be left with a portrait of an ex.

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