A laser crackles like an electronic fly zapper as Darren Speight begins to attack the outline of a dolphin inked on to Antoinette Higgins’ right breast. Eighteen years ago, at 16, Higgins had the animal tattooed high enough to be displayed while wearing a bikini but low enough to escape her mother’s eye. “Mum always said ‘don’t’,” she says, grimacing, as a dull grey crust forms around the dolphin’s snout. “So I did.”
For several years she loved the result – a simple etching, mostly black, with patches of aqua in the background. Come adulthood she started to feel ambivalent. In a few more years she had taken to covering up. “Around the early 30s mark I didn’t want to look at it anymore. It was a stupid tattoo, a dodgy tattoo, in old-school colours – just horrible.”
As Higgins lies squirming, already agitated from recently quitting smoking, Speight wields a blower emitting numbing, frigid air in one hand, a pronged laser in the other, and slowly works over the surface of the fading drawing. The searing process takes perhaps five minutes and leaves Higgins with a slightly less noticeable image on a patch of sore, red skin. She pays $150 for the session – her second of an expected seven rounds of treatment before she is finally dolphin-free.
Tattoos are meant to be forever, but not every love affair endures. “When people get [a tattoo] they think, I am going to want this for the rest of my life. It’s not until five or ten years down the track that it no longer means what they thought it would,” says Speight, who, at 42, clean-cut and tattoo-free, is embarking on an unlikely new career. “I don’t look at it so much as taking away people’s art as taking away people’s regrets.”
Speight spent a decade working in risk management. Last year, after a surf at his local beach, he and a friend noted the passing parade of tattooed bodies – an increasing and increasingly middle-class phenomenon – and wondered about the money to be made from people changing their minds: “No one gets a T-shirt for that long.” So Speight and his wife Carol, a primary school teacher, decided to retrain as laser technicians. They opened their new tattoo-removal business in November. “We now deal in happiness,” he says.
The path to happiness leads through a busy shopping centre on Sydney’s northern beaches, past families pushing prams and trolleys, up two floors and down a hallway to a pristine white desk fronting a suite of minimalist rooms. “A cross between a doctor’s surgery and a day spa” is the vibe Speight is after.
Regrets tackled so far have included the names of former partners, new tattoos that no longer seem quite so desirable in the harsh light of sobriety, and a spate of Southern Crosses that, Speight says, have not carried the same cachet since the Cronulla riots of 2005. One client, a businessman, is removing his daughters’ names because he’s no longer fond of the childlike font he let them choose.
Seventy per cent of his clients are female. “My theory is that all throughout their lives women are happy to go out and change the things they don’t like about themselves,” says Speight. “They will change their hair, they will change their clothes. Men have got too much ego to say, ‘I don’t like that.’”
Among the clients this morning is Patrick Annis-Brown, a quiet 29 year old who works in banking. The bearer of several other tattoos, he thought it would be nice to add an image of his girlfriend to his bicep, along with some English and Korean text and, just above his elbow, a sizeable cupid. To his amazement, his girlfriend was not impressed with the cartoonish sketch, so he covered it up with another tattoo, a large green and purple flower, which took two hours to apply. But it was not what he wanted for his upper arm.
His treatment begins with a test shot; there is an audible crack and almost immediately a small patch of black outline has disappeared. “It feels like a rubber band snapping against your skin,” says Annis-Brown, unflinching, his eyes shielded by goggles. He faces ten, possibly more, laser treatments to remove all the layers of ink. The process is slower than normal because of the unusual colours; the laser has to work harder to smash the green and purple particles to a size that might be expelled by his body.
After 25 minutes the entire surface of the flower is raised and crackled. The session costs $450 and Annis-Brown leaves with his bicep slathered in antiseptic cream. For at least another nine sessions, his declaration of love will be known as “the treatment area”.
There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.
That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.
The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.
Select your digital subscription