When Dr. Will Kirby and his partner decided in 2004 to open a business that would specialize in removing tattoos, they were eyeing a growing market. 'Fifty years ago sailors had 90 percent of tattoos. Now, lawyers and doctors and everyone else had tattoos,' says Ian Kirby, Will's brother and current business partner. The year before, a Harris Interactive Poll had estimated that about 17 percent of Americans had a tattoo.
Dr. Kirby noticed studios etching tattoos everywhere he looked, but he couldn't find a clinic that specialized in serving the inevitable proportion of these studios' customers who would regret their permanent body art. He opened the first Dr. Tattoff in Beverly Hills to fill this need. On Dr. Tattoff's first day of business, 90 people inquired about the process of removing a tattoo. Six years, 50,000 treatments, and two more locations later, the environment for the unusual franchise concept has only improved. In an economy when start-up capital is hard to come by, Dr. Tattoff has plans to open an additional location in Texas later this year, and, if all goes well, to expand to nearly every state within five years.
'I think the demand is rising every day,' says Dr. Kirby. 'There are 20-25,000 tattoo parlors putting on tattoos every day and very few people removing them efficiently. If you come to my clinic, we're busy every day of the week.'
In a 2006 Northwestern University study, 24 percent of respondents reported having a tattoo and 17 percent of them were considering getting it removed. More entrepreneurs are looking to cater to that 17 percent, whether it be through tattoo removal, training tattoo removal technicians, or, in one case, developing an easier-to-remove ink.
The success of tattoo removal businesses like Dr. Tattoff was benefited by several trends. The most obvious was the increasing social acceptability of tattoos. An art that was once reserved for bikers and gang members has now, according to the Northwestern study, left a mark on nearly a quarter of the population. And as the number of tattoos increases, so does the number of people who regret them. Another trend is the improving technology for tattoo removal. 'Before, lasers were kind of like bazookas; they would just blast the skin,' says Ian Kirby. 'And doctors really hadn't had enough experience with them to do much with them.'
Now experienced practitioners are often able to remove tattoos with little or no scarring or discoloration. And, thanks to a new die, laser removal may get even easier. Infinitink, which was released by a company called Freedom2 last year, can be removed in fewer laser treatments than a typical ink tattoo. Although Freedom2 has thus far sold less than a mere $100,000 of the ink—tattoo artists like to consider their art permanent—it was met with high consumer approval in marketing tests. Despite lowering the number of paid treatments each tattoo would require for removal, Infinitink is a welcome development among tattoo removal businesses.
'If you could get a tattoo and have it for spring or summer, show it off, and get it removed in one or two treatments come October, than I think many many more people who would never get a tattoo would get a tattoo, and many people who already have tattoos would get plenty more because they could just get rid of it if they didn't want it,' Ian Kirby says.
Palomar Medical Technologies, one company that sells lasers to tattoo-removal clinics, saw a 575 percent growth in sales between when they first started selling the device in 2000 and 2007. During the economic turmoil of 2008, purchases of the $75,000 device dropped by about a third, but Branden Morris, Palomar's integrated marketing manager, commented that sales began to resurge last year.
Tattoo removal training programs have also taken off. Louis Silberman, the co-founder of the National Laser Institute (NLI) in Scottsdale, Arizona, is opening a new location in Dallas within the next two months and planning at least five more. Since 2004, the institute has trained more than 3,000 people in laser tattoo removal. Silberman also started a consulting business specifically for tattoo removal start-ups last year. He says he's currently in discussions with about 50 people who are interested in opening up tattoo-removal clinics, most who have been trained to remove tattoos in one of the NLI's 3- to 14-day laser courses.
In order to open a tattoo removal clinic, indirect supervision of a doctor is required. This means that a doctor has to be available for advice, but not necessarily in the building. Some states also require the technician to be a medical professional, such as a nurse, in order to perform the procedure. Despite these barriers to entry, Silberman sees the tattoo removal business as bound to succeed.
'I would say the number one reason people want to take tattoos off is because they love them so much that they want to put on a new tattoo, but all their cool body parts are taken up by old tattoos,' Silberman says. 'It made us realize, gosh, there's a market for this.'