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Tattoos: Should people test-drive them first?

By Lucy Townsend
BBC News Magazine

image captionTattoo aficionados rarely regret the masterpieces they have had

As tattooing becomes ever more popular and mainstream, how can people ensure they don't end up getting one that they later feel they have to painfully remove?

Joe Munroe says he will never regret his tattoo. Black ink meanders across his forehead, snaking its way to his cheeks, ears and down, covering his whole body.

"It made my mum cry," he says. But he has no second thoughts.

Neither does Roni, 7ft tall in platform boots and resplendent in purple frills. She says she tattooed her own eyeballs. The whites of her eyes are now jet-black. "It didn't hurt that much," she says, blinking.

media captionVisitors to the convention in London explain why they love their tattoos

Some of the tattoo world's most zealous disciples gathered at London's Tobacco Docks for the 7th International Tattoo Convention over the weekend. Around 20,000 people attended the convention, and since its launch in 2005, it has got bigger each year.

Tattoos are no longer the trophies of rockers, sailors, bikers, bohemians and criminals, they have gone mainstream.

Tattoo magazines lie alongside Good Housekeeping on the shop shelves and the diversity of the tattooed people one encounters in the street shows age and style is no barrier to getting inked.

Even when the hardcore tattooed run out of skin, there will always be a new wave - whether they are teenagers or grandmothers - who are ready to offer up their bodies to the buzz of the tattoo machine.

Tattoo conventions are a world where ink equals art, where Japanese Koi carp swim along the same tide as Maori tribal markings and the goddess Aphrodite.

Most importantly, it is a world with no regrets.

But what about the people who do suffer tattoo remorse? Those who pick the wrong design or the wrong position, who get inked on impulse and regret it later.

Should there be more pre-tattoo talk for those of us who are new to this art form? Helping us decide not just the design, but where it is and why we want it, and if in fact, we want it at all.

image captionRoni says she tattooed her own eyeballs

I have never been able to commit to a tattoo, so instead I am test-driving one. An eight-inch dragon covers my left arm, spray-painted on and with me for a week.

At the tattoo convention I feel like a fraud. These people can spot a fake a mile off - the two guys I do show give me a pitiful wince. "It's not great," says Brent McCown, a New Zealander covered head to toe with Samoan tribal ink.

Presenting my dragon to my nearest and dearest I get some more reactions. My mum likes it - she says it is pretty and looks like a doily. My dad reached for his glasses and then laughed. The strangest reaction came courtesy of my two-year-old niece, who told me I needed a wash.

I like it, because I can see it fading and because like fashion, it is short-term. It is a new look like a new shade of lipstick, and that is all.

Father-of-one Tariq Ali, from Warwickshire, is not so fortunate. Aged 15 he set off with his friend to get a tattoo, any tattoo. He ended up with the Grim Reaper on his arm. Holding a pumpkin.

The 37-year-old says: "We had had a few drinks. It wasn't a well thought-out plan - I just knew I had gone there to get a tattoo and that it would be cool.

image captionTariq Ali is less than delighted with his tattoo

"A friend of mine had his tattoo lasered off and it scarred him - it looks even worse than it did before. I thought about getting it covered by another tattoo, but if that looked bad it would just scale up the shame. I have to live with it."

Personal trainer Alan O'Mahony, from Cork in Ireland, is similarly remorseful of his tattoo. Aged 16 and feeling patriotic he had an Irish flag and a harp on his left shoulder. A few years later and he had an American Indian chief tattooed on the other.

The 28-year-old says: "I was Thai boxing at the time and my body was really changing shape. As my arms changed the tattoos became more and more distorted and now it just looks awful, not good at all.

image captionLondon's international tattoo convention has grown rapidly

"I wish someone had told me about how tattoos can change shape, because it would definitely have made me think twice. Now I always try to cover it up. At the end of the day it is just some ink in my arm, but I think people make judgements."

No reputable tattoo artist would think about inking someone under 18, and it goes without saying that they would turn away people that had been drinking. Artists tend to talk over the design before it is done, giving the recipient a chance to have a final think about it.

But there is still plenty of work for the removers.

Jonathan Sheril manages The Body Clinic, where staff have been removing tattoos with lasers for the past 15 years. He said: "We have removed thousands upon thousands and by far the most common one to get removed is the name of an ex.

"What I can never understand is that about once a month we will have someone call us to say that they are about to have a tattoo put on, what can they do to have it removed? Get a tattoo in an instant and repent at your leisure because they are not always easy to remove."

Lasering costs between £50 and £150 a session, and between eight and 12 sessions are needed, all one month apart. It feels like someone repeatedly flicking your skin with a rubber band and it is not a certain process.

For some the tattoo will disappear completely, for others it will fade a little, and for the unlucky ones - like Ali's friend - it scars.

image captionHardcore tattoo fans are less likely to have regrets

For me, soap will do the trick, which is a good job as I am bored with my dragon already. A tattoo is a lifelong commitment, and one that I am not quite ready to make.

A selection of reader comments will appear on a follow-up piece.