my tattoos

Tass Cambitzi has been tattooed 18 times, but is now undergoing painful laser removal.

She has struggled to find value and self-worth all her life, but believes this will be easier without tattoos.

“I want to start again,” she says. “I want nothingness.”

Tass has had three serious relationships, and the identity of each man has been etched on her body.

She describes each coupling as “more inappropriate than the next”.

Tass Cambitzi, 2016

Tass Cambitzi, 2016

Now, along with the rest of her many tattoos, the 34-year-old yoga teacher wants the symbols that represented her former lovers to be gone.

“In my early 20s I was engaged to a Puerto Rican man who'd been in prison for fraud. I had a tattoo on my ankle which was supposed to be of him, with his name beneath. I later had it covered by a bigger tattoo of a feather.”

Feather tattoo on Tass's leg

Feather tattoo on Tass's leg

“My second one was when I was living in the Bahamas, again in my 20s. I put his name, Michael, on the base of my spine. He was - and I knew it - completely unfaithful. Again, my only way of securing something that was completely not tangible was to solidify it on my body.

It was 'I've got your name tattooed on my spine - we're together'.”

Tass had tattoos on the back of her neck, both shoulder blades, parts of both her arms, her lower back, her abdomen, her left hip and her right leg. Some were drawn over existing ones, erasing one chapter of her life when another began.

But her largest piece of work, done when she was 30, was to mark her biggest love, and subsequently her biggest heartbreak.

“There's this guy who's been in my life since I was eight years old - he was at school with my brother - who's an artist. He was such a big identity, and I was attracted to it. I've always longed for this guy's attention. He's very exciting, charismatic and very good looking.”

They first got together when Tass was 21. That relationship didn't last, but the two never quite broke off contact, their paths crossing from time to time.

“One night, many years ago, after he'd stayed with me, he left me this drawing of a heart which also said 'I love you' at the top. I got it tattooed on my arm.

“He used to come see me for a couple of nights. I wouldn't ask about his life because I knew there was another girl. He'd then leave and I couldn't get hold of him again for six months.

“I had so little self-worth that I just wouldn't ask, because I was just grateful for the crumbs of a few nights with him.”

Eventually, many years later, the two become a couple again and shared a home.

“We were together solidly for 18 months and it turns out he was a deeply, deeply troubled individual with no identity of his own. I had a terrible time due to it and we split in 2014.

“Breaking up with him has single-handedly been the thing that's floored me the most.”

He had often told Tass a story that they were always meant to be together. He would call her “Elfin warrior” and himself the “tree wizard”. He would say they were made from the same roots.

So Tass had a large tattoo of these fantastical characters, representing him and her, on her back.

Characters tattooed on the lower back

Characters tattooed on the lower back

“I found worth in his worth. I knew he liked tattoos. I thought 'this guy is very good looking, and has been very successful. He likes me, therefore I must be valuable'.”

But their relationship broke down.

Tass has a tattoo representing another man, but this is of her beloved brother, Alexander.

Tass and her brother's initials on her neck

Tass and her brother's initials on her neck

In 2006 he was struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction. Eventually he sought treatment and got sober. But there was a nine-month period where there were some touch-and-go moments, where his family thought he would die.

“My brother is my everything. Because I thought I was going to lose Alexander, I tattooed his initials and mine intertwined on the back of my neck.”

“I dread the sessions”

The walls in the tattoo removal suite are white, and its rooms are small and full of equipment and surgical tables.

Tass is here to have more of her tattoos removed by laser.

“I dread the sessions,” she says.

On a scale of one to 10, the level of pain is 11. The parts of my body which are lasered feel hot afterwards, and they swell.”

Photographs of her arm after a previous treatment show large, greenish blisters clinging to it.

Blisters on Tass's lower arm after laser treatment

Blisters on Tass's lower arm after laser treatment

The laser breaks down the tattoo's pigment, allowing the body's lymphatic system to gradually remove the destroyed ink from the skin. But the beam is incredibly hot.

Since October 2014, Tass has been doggedly undergoing these removal sessions in a tiny underground studio in London's Soho.

She's had about a dozen sessions so far, determined to remove by light what was drawn by needle.

Tass, who lives in Gloucestershire, says getting inked cost a total of £1,500, while the removal process is costing £5,500.

Tass was depressed as a teenager and eventually went through periods of addiction to drink and drugs. Her tattoos were an armour.

They served as two messages. One was 'look at me' and invited attention. Another was a protective measure of 'please don't get too close'. They provided a barrier between me and a world I was frightened of.”

“Most of my tattoos are memorable dates, memorable words, things that I felt frightened of losing. I felt that if I was able to stamp them into my life somehow, then I wouldn't lose them.”

But Tass does not need them any longer.

Tass - short for Anastasia - grew up in London, but her parents separated when she was eight. She wouldn't regularly see her father again, who is Greek, until she was 18.

She was sent to a boarding school in High Wycombe aged seven, then another in Ascot aged 13 until she was asked to leave at 15 because of her behaviour.

Her first brush with the tattoo needle was in London's Kensington Market when she was 14, a small flower-like design picked off the tattooist's wall and put on to her hip.

My first was an act of rebellion. It was like trying a cigarette or alcohol. I took quite a lot of pleasure of saying to my mother 'by the way, I got a tattoo'.”

“I was not a pleasant teenager. I wanted to hurt people I'd perceived had hurt me. With hindsight I can see that a lot of my actions were attention-seeking, but at the cost of myself, because I'm the one who's suffered for it.

“I started smoking and using cocaine by 14. I didn't even know what it was when cocaine was offered to me. I just did it. Later, when I was using more drugs, I'd do whatever was going.

“They were ways to connect me to people who I thought had a strong sense of identity - the cool kids, the older kids. People who I thought could keep me safe. Drug-taking and tattoos are part of the price you pay for being accepted by the tribe.”

One person who remained as a constant through Tass's childhood was her older brother Alexander.

When Tass was 12, her mother went with her new husband to live in South Africa, and a long-term nanny left their home following a row, leaving Tass feeling “really alone”. Soon after she entered therapy.

But things didn't get better. She describes her life between 14 and 18 as “a sea of trouble”, marked by hospitals, self harm, mental institutions and overdoses.

Really unfortunate things were happening to me because I was half out of it, half the time. I was taking psychotropic drugs, and taking illegal drugs and drinking as well.”

She tried to kill herself, aged 16, through an overdose. “I have made three or four attempts to kill myself that were with the serious intention of not waking up.”

After that first attempt she was admitted into her first mental institution, in South Africa, where she had gone to live with her mother and stepfather.

“I was diagnosed as manic depressive, but a lot of people have questioned that diagnosis today.

Tass before laser treatment

Tass before laser treatment

“Eventually my mother became desperate and sent me to get mental healthcare in America, aged 17. I spent about eight weeks in a facility in Arizona and got sober.”

She was then sent to Florida for secondary care, where she started meeting others who were also recovering from addiction, and heavily tattooed.

“I was around a lot of damaged souls, and it's a common theme - I hate to say it - but damaged souls imprint themselves with tattoos.

“I got my panthers on my back to commemorate getting sober on 11 September 2000. They were guarding me, protecting me, because I believe in an animal instinct as a higher power.”

Tass's panther tattoos on her upper back

Tass's panther tattoos on her upper back

Within the next few years, Tass began to collect more tattoos. She got another panther on her wrist, and a dragon on her lower abdomen.

“By now, in my early 20s, I'm entering the territory of someone who's tattooed. There's a difference between somebody who has a tattoo, and somebody who's tattooed. It made me part of a group.

“I recognise now that I have a deep sense of lack of value, so I don't feel like guys are attracted to me. I felt my tattoos gave guys something to be attracted to.”

Tass highlights one particular downside to being heavily inked - people she does not know approach her because of them.

“Initially it was something I quite liked. Now I have a visceral response when someone tries to touch me or talk to me about my tattoos.

“Around 2014 I started to get annoyed with people coming up to me in the street and talking about my tattoos, guys just touching my arm without asking.

“I'd opened the gates to this unwanted attention, which at one point was wanted. I was not as happy with my body and weight as I once was, so I didn't want attention drawn to my body any more. I have had an eating disorder at various times.”

I'm so angry about the attention I've attracted. But it's an anger towards myself. I've made myself an open book for everybody. Now I wish all of that was a bit more private.”

“A very impulsive act”

"Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul."

That is the first stanza of Invictus, by William Ernest Henley, published in 1888.

The poem's popularity is enduring, having been used by Winston Churchill in a House of Commons speech during World War II, and quoted by Barack Obama at Nelson Mandela's memorial service in 2013, among many other references in popular culture.

Mandela himself recited it to fellow prisoners while imprisoned on Robben Island.

Tass likes Invictus so much she had the word tattooed on her forearm, and learned the poem by heart.

“The first two lines are particularly significant for me, which mention 'from pole to pole', because I was diagnosed as bipolar aged 15, put on medication and in mental institutions.”

Getting the Invictus tattoo, large and unmissable on her right arm, was a “very, very impulsive” act.

She decided upon it one morning, and by lunchtime was under the needle. The ink is so thick it has only partially responded to the laser removal.

The Invictus tattoo after some laser treatment

The Invictus tattoo after some laser treatment

Aged 18, by now sober, she had “Ad Augusta Per Angusta” etched into her upper left arm. It means “to greatness through anguish” in Latin. She got it when she was living in Florida.

When she was 19, Tass got “Apophainesthai” tattooed on her right forearm, a Greek word which she says means “to know thyself”.

Faded inscriptions on the inside of Tass's right arm

Faded inscriptions on the inside of Tass's right arm

“Which is ironic,” she says, “as the tattoos are clear evidence of my self-doubt and lack of self-knowledge.”

She say this phrase complements both the 12-step approach she found in therapy groups, of taking a look at yourself rather than the world around you to instigate change, and also the yogic practice of self-study - known as svadhyaya.

When she was 24, Tass got Latin words inked on her fingers.

Remains of tattoos on Tass's fingers

Remains of tattoos on Tass's fingers

She had been living in the Bahamas off and on since she was 16, bonding tightly with Pip, a woman her mother knew who ran a hotel there, and her family.

Tass took them as her own, living with them, and Pip adopted Tass almost as her own daughter.

But Tass sometimes behaved badly. She was supposed to work at the hotel, but didn't really do much.

Before she got sober she'd often get drunk and high, partying hard on the tropical island, disrupting the family, running up huge phone bills with calls to South Africa.

Even after she was sober she caused the family problems, the final straw being a time when she was responsible for Pip's son missing a flight off the island.

In 2006 Tass returned to the UK for what was supposedly a short trip, and while there Pip sent over a four-page fax, saying that they didn't want her to come back. They loved her, but not her behaviour.

“I was absolutely gutted,” Tass says. “I just remember feeling so, so alone.”

Having received this crushing news in London, she walked across the street to a tattoo parlour, and got two phrases tattooed on her fingers.

One said “Cor Ad Cor Loquitur” - the heart speaks to the heart - and the other “In Deo Speramus” - in God we trust.

“Emotionally, physically and financially taxing”

The popularity of tattoos shows no sign of abating.

Last year, a YouGov survey suggested that 19% of British adults have a tattoo, although 14% of those have since had regrets about going under the needle.

It also said 36% of people would think less positively of someone sporting a large tattoo.

Another recent survey in the US said 29% of Americans have at least one tattoo, up from 21% four years ago.

But that same poll states that, as the number of those sporting tattoos in the US has risen, so has regret. About 23% say they wish they hadn't got one - up from 14% in 2012.

Prof Viren Swami, of Anglia Ruskin University, who has researched tattoos, says there are three reasons people no longer want tattoos on their bodies.

One is social, particularly with women, in that they get a new employer who might not approve, a different partner or have a child and want an old tattoo removed.

Another is aesthetics - the design might simply have not aged well, so people want to get rid of a now-unflattering image.

The other is where people's sense of identity has altered over time.

“It may be that they have had a hard life and their tattoo symbolises that, and they don't want to be reminded of their past,” Swami says.

“They don't think it represents who they are any more, and that they're now someone different.”

Tattoo removal by laser

Tattoo removal by laser

Back at the Reset Room, the tattoo removal studio, Wayne Joyce is busy running the laser over Tass's skin.

A genial South African who's never seen without his flat cap, he talks to her in a supportive tone as she squirms under the heat.

Each of her treated tattoos has had about four full courses of the laser. Wayne estimates it could take about three more full passes over the tattoos - so roughly about 15 sessions in total will be needed by the end of all the treatments.

The 37-year-old from Johannesburg is himself heavily tattooed, with full sleeves visible on both his arms.

Wayne Joyce

Wayne Joyce

He thinks 60% of his body is covered in tattoos. He has a cartoonish Grim Reaper, riding a scythe, drawn on his calf.

Years ago, he wanted some of his own tattoos removed - a result of “making bad decisions, rushing into it and not researching the artist”.

But when he approached some clinics, he was met with a “condescending attitude”. One dermatologist refused because he did not agree with Wayne's plans to remove a tattoo so as to allow another to be placed on top.

Wayne eventually decided to go into business, realising there were no tattoo removal businesses working out of any London tattoo shops - so he found a friendly tattooist in King's Cross, and set up in their premises in 2009.

He moved to his current location in Soho, in basement rooms with a beauty salon upstairs, at the end of 2013.

The premises are regulated by Westminster Council but there is no scheme to license or regulate the tattoo removal practitioners themselves.

“We have people who can't get a job because they have their daughter's name tattooed on their neck, guys who want to join the army, police officers, nurses, doctors, lawyers.

“Some of them are in a bit of a state. There's a multitude of reasons why they want their tattoo removed. Whether it's for display purposes, or a defence mechanism, or an issue that you've harboured from your past.”

In the end, Wayne removed his own unwanted tattoos.

Tattoo removal on Wayne's arm

Tattoo removal on Wayne's arm

The density of the ink, age of the tattoo and its location are big factors in how successful the removal process will be.

The after-effects of tattoo removal are brutal. There's blistering, there's a very high chance of scarring. It can be really emotionally, physically and financially taxing.”

Wayne has even encountered a few parents who wanted to bring their teenage children to see his work and hear of the pain involved in an attempt to dissuade them from getting tattooed.

“It scares the life out of the kids,” he says.

“I still believe… in all of my tattoos”

In 2010, when Tass reached 10 years of being sober, she threw a party, paid for by her godfather. It took nine months to plan.

She also had a deal with a Milan shoe company to design footwear around this time so was feeling “excited and ambitious”.

The party was a celebration of her life, of how 10 years ago prior her heart had stopped in Chelsea and Westminster hospital after a suicide attempt, and she had to be brought back.

A close friend, Petra, was supposed to take photographs at the party, but called just before to say she wasn't up to it.

The two had known each other since they were about three, attending the same birthday parties, and ending up at the same school.

Tass with Petra

Tass with Petra

Petra had been diagnosed with an eating disorder in her early teens and fought against it.

But she lost that battle in December 2010, after taking a heavy cocktail of psychotropic drugs.

Her death hit Tass very hard.

“We had both, in our own ways, usually misguided, tried to find a place to belong in a world that frightened us, that we had never quite felt good enough for.”

Tass turned to yoga. She says her life to this day is directly influenced by her friend's death.

Tass now teaches yoga

Tass now teaches yoga

“Every year on 22 December I go to the bridge that her ashes were thrown from, and I read her a letter about my findings and progress over the past year.

“I ask her to watch over me for the following year, and hold me back from being deceived by the temptation of nestling into yet another new identity, to stay grounded in me and that I am enough.”

Tass reached her early 30s and continued to get more tattoos. The last were anatomical drawings - in the style of Leonardo da Vinci - of a hand, a spinal cord, and a skull.

Spinal cord tattoo before laser treatment

Spinal cord tattoo before laser treatment

“As crazy as it sounds, I wanted something to make the Invictus less legible so people would stop touching them and talking to me about it.

“Because I'm a yoga teacher, and interested in the body and have done trauma work, the anatomy drawings spoke to me.”

The reference to trauma relates to her work in prisons where she's helped with addiction therapy. She was also once involved in a two-year scheme with the now-closed Kids Company, aimed at preventing young people from joining gangs. There have also been meditation and yoga workshops with the mental health charity Bipolar UK.

Tass says her relationship with the people she's known in her life, and even those just passing through, is “love me, love me, love me, but don't come too close”.

“The tattoos provided the perfect vehicle for that because they invite attention, but because of the nature that a tattoo is put on - it's quite violent to drill ink into your skin - it gives you a tough quality.

You're never going to find your value, or your identity, through anything externally. You cannot be defined by anything.”

Tass says she's realised she isn't defined by her past, or who she's in a relationship with, or her job.

“I don't want my story shown on my body any more. And it's not that I'm not proud of my story, I'm very proud of it. None of my tattoos are silly. They all have deep meaning to them.

“I still believe… in all of my tattoos. And to some extent, even though I will never entertain him in my life again, I still believe in the love between my ex and I.”

She has realised, she says, that while those things all still exist, she does not need to grip them.

“I've lived off medication for nine years now. I support myself through a healthy diet, yoga and my support system which includes my brother. I don't really display any bipolar symptoms now.”

Still she wants these traces of her former life gone, but for some areas of her body the pain is a barrier.

Ice packs can reduce post-treatment pain

Ice packs can reduce post-treatment pain

“Getting the tattoos done on my back, leg and lower abdomen was excruciatingly painful. So the thought of removing them makes me wince. They're so enormous, and the ink is so thick, and there are many nerve endings where they are located.

“So I won't do them. But I feel sadness that I can't take them off.”

Tass hopes a gentler technology can be developed to allow her to have the rest of her tattoos removed in a less painful way. And there will still be shadows of the ones that have gone.

“But when I wake up now, and my arm used to be black, I think - it's better than it was.”