One week into the new year, Kortnie Bodkin was hard at work with a laser, erasing the past.
Bodkin is a licensed skin and laser specialist at Cascade Medical Spa & Tattoo Removal Center in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Southeast Portland. As she zapped off unwanted ink in the strip mall-style building two blocks from the Willamette River, clients unloaded the tales behind their unwanted ink.
"People tell me stories about breakups, jail, things they did while drinking," she says. "I don't ask—but they tell me everything."
This is tattoo-removal season.
January is tied for the busiest month at the clinic, says Cascade's owner, Forrest Smith. (The other is May.) "We've received a lot of phone calls in the past two weeks from people saying, 'It's the new year, and I want to move on from this or that.'"
In part, that's because Smith and Bodkin are in the business of regret—and freeing people of their symbolic baggage. "I've had customers in tears telling me about how I'm changing their lives," Smith says.
Tattoo removal might seem like a counterintuitive line of work in Portland, a city whose close relationship with body art can be spotted everywhere from Blazers games to yoga classes. But in fact, getting rid of ink is a lucrative business.
In the past three years, six tattoo-removal clinics have opened in Portland—more than tripling the number in the city.
Smith has seen steady business since he opened two years ago. He treats an average of 600 clients annually, he says.
The treatment generally takes three to seven sessions—10 to 30 seconds each time under the laser—which clients describe as more painful than getting the tattoo. They say it feels like being snapped repeatedly by a rubber band, and heals much like an oven burn.
For that privilege, Cascade charges $225 to $700, depending on the shade of ink, body placement and skin tone.
Last weekend, WW spent a day inside the Cascade center. We found that a tattoo-removal clinic is a cross between a hospital, a beauty parlor and a church confessional.
Bodkin, a bubbly brunette, has performed roughly 2,500 of the treatments over two years. The tattoos Bodkin has removed range from romantic gestures gone wrong to gang signs and goofy misspellings. She sees the humor in her work.
"One guy had a tattoo on his chest that said, 'Everyone Is a Genius,' but 'Genius' was spelled wrong," she says. It was not meant as a joke. No matter: "It was super-funny."
Cascade has helped a woman remove the name "MIKE," her ex-boyfriend, from her vulva. Another client scrubbed "Bite Me" from a hipbone. And one man erased his ex-wife's name, with a line through it, over his heart, she says.
Other clients have told darker tales, including men with swastikas and gang signs, along with a woman who was "marked" by an abusive boyfriend. Portlanders have plenty of serious reasons to start fresh. They range from "cleaning up" to score a desk job to leaving prison or gang culture. Others want to join the military or escape cycles of abuse.
The most common reason for an unwanted tattoo? No surprise: It's booze. At least half of clients simply made bad decisions while drinking, Bodkin says.
"You see a lot of dolphins on ankles and tramp stamps from 15 years ago," she says. "There are a lot of tribal tattoos. And so much barbed wire!"
Before he opened the business, Smith, a 42-year-old Army vet, had a clichéd tattoo himself. He got into the business after removing a skull from his one of his biceps, which he called a "dumb decision" to impress an older friend as a teenager.
Smith says he tapped into the right market at the right time.
"I made it affordable to the average person," he says. "In the past, a lot of businesses have charged too much for subpar laser machines, and done more damage than good."
On the first Saturday of 2018, Smith, who has the build of a linebacker and a playful sense of humor, welcomed a steady stream of clients into a waiting room enlivened by candy dishes and Michael Jackson music videos playing on a flat-screen TV. "Hello! Can I get you some water? Coffee?" he asked customers with a grin.
Inside the treatment room, Bodkin instructed patients to wear special blue-lensed glasses to avoid eye damage. She gave nervous clients a warning before administering a zap of the violet laser, then unleashed a blast of soothing cool air. Before they left, she instructed each of them to keep the blistering wound clean and dry. An onsite skin doctor oversaw the whole thing.
Over the course of a day, WW spoke to more than a dozen customers getting tattoos removed.
Some wanted to forget past lovers. Others were embarrassed by tacky teenage mistakes. But all agreed there's real power in wiping the emotional and physical slate clean.
We changed a few names (marked with an asterisk), but the stories are real. So was the ink. Until it was blasted away.
Name | Jon*
Age | 26
Tattoo | The name "Dawn," left ring finger
Jon was 18 years old and cruising around downtown Portland with his then-girlfriend, Dawn, when she suggested they tattoo each others' names on their wedding-ring fingers.
"She acted like it was spontaneous—but she already had it set up and scheduled," says Jon, a construction worker from Oregon City. "She was a manipulative person and she blindsided me."
He agreed to the tattoo simply to avoid a fight. "It was a bad relationship," he adds. "I regretted it before I even did it. My finger says 'Dawn' but it should say 'Dumb'!"
Flash forward eight years, and Jon is engaged to another woman, who is not thrilled about his ex-girlfriend's name hogging his most romantic digit. "It has caused problems with my fiancee," he says. "It drives her crazy that I have the name of another woman on my body."
Jon recently had the name "Brittney," his wife-to-be, tattooed more than 20 times larger on the inside of his forearm.
"I actually like seeing this one," he says, gesturing at the bold black ink. "I've learned not to go against my better judgment."
Name | Samantha Maulin
Age | 31
Tattoo | Swallow, half-sleeve arm
Six years ago, Maulin was going through a nasty breakup and hankering for a change. Her sister, who had a tattoo of a swallow marked with Maulin's birthday, had asked her to get one, too.
A tattoo artist friend near her then-home in New Mexico invited her to his pad and offered her a good deal. "The swallow represents loyalty because they mate for life," says Maulin, a phlebotomist (a technician who draws blood) living in Sandy, Ore.
It was an intimate filial gesture. One problem: The bird was hideous. "It turned out looking more like a twisted parakeet," she says. "It was bad."
To make matters worse, Maulin has since had a falling out with her sister. "We are estranged," she says, "so this tattoo is like a bad part of my past, stapled to my body."
Last year, she fled "small-minded" Farmington, N.M., moved to Sandy and had an epiphany. "I realized you can be exactly who you want to be," she says. "I am turning over a new leaf."
The DIY Artist
Name | Jennifer Gray
Age | 26
Tattoo | Henna-style design, scalp
Gray isn't scared of pain. So when she saw several "gorgeous women" rocking Mohawks and scalp tattoos online, she decided to give herself one.
She ordered the ink, watched a "how-to" tutorial on YouTube and went for it. "I spent 15 minutes doing it and was like, wow, that was dumb," says Gray, who works as a waitress. "I was trying to hurry up and finish it because I was in so much pain."
It didn't turn out as sexy as she'd hoped. "It looks like I have a skin disease—with dark spots on my scalp," she says. "Next time, if I want to do something myself, I'll take a class."
The Soul Searcher
Name | Chelsea Benjamin
Age | 25
Tattoo | A bird atop the word "Serenity," wrist
Benjamin was feeling grateful. At age 19, she had tried for months to shake off a crippling depression. When she managed to get it under control, she celebrated by getting a tattoo.
"I was searching for inner peace, so I got the word 'Serenity,' on my wrist,'" she says. "It was to mark a mental health milestone."
But six years later, she says, the bird looks awkward landing on the tip of the letter Y. "Now I make fun of myself. Have you seen Portlandia? It's like, put a bird on it!"
She says the new year inspired her to remove the lopsided creature. "I want to let go of bad things I've been holding onto," says Benjamin, who is now a recovery coach for teens with eating disorders, living in the Woodstock neighborhood.
When it comes to big life decisions, like tattoos, Benjamin advises not to base long-term changes on fleeting moods. "You should be in a good mental state before you make the choice," she says.
Name | Laura
Age | 29
Tattoo | Snake, half-sleeve arm
Not long before her wedding two years ago, Laura was struck by an idea for her next tattoo. It was a desert scene and a nod to her roots as a kid growing up in the Mojave Desert. It featured a snake slithering through the sand with a sunset in the background.
A Portland tattoo artist drew up a sketch, and she loved it. But once on her body, it looked completely different. "A 9-year-old could have done it!" says Laura, who now lives in Camas, Wash. "I felt so insecure about it."
On top of that, she was pregnant and didn't know it, which caused her body to reject the ink, giving the design a blurry look as it healed.
At her wedding, months later, she wore a sleeveless gown. "People came up to me after the ceremony, pointed to it and said, 'Really?'—which made me feel like S-H-I-T," the stay-at-home-mom says, spelling out the expletive.
Now on the brink of 30, she wants a fresh start. "I want to feel comfortable in my own skin—literally," she says. "Most things in life, you can't fix. So, if you can, you should."
The Cultural Appropriator
Name | Toni LaRiccia
Age | 36
Tattoo | Tribal sign, back of neck
At age 18, LaRiccia was hanging out with an older crowd. A tattoo, she thought, would make her seem cooler: more mature and more punk-rock. She impulsively picked a sun-shaped piece of tribal-style flash art on the wall of a Portland tattoo parlor and plunked down $80.
"It's just a really bad '90s tattoo: a horrible tribal sign," says LaRiccia, a legal receptionist who lives in the Brooklyn neighborhood. "I was fresh out of high school. I didn't know what the hell I was doing." She got the sun art inked on the back of her neck.
For years she avoided wearing her hair up, which exposed the embarrassing stamp. But a few months ago, she says, "I came to the revelation I now have the resources to get rid of it."
She wishes she could give her younger self a lecture about borrowing the symbols of other cultures. She now considers the act tacky at best.
"I'd tell my 18-year-old self to spend a day thinking about what [tattoo] to get," she says, "and I'd say, these days, tribal tattoos are considered culturally appropriated."
Name | Molly*
Age | 32
Tattoo | Anchor, wrist
There's a story Molly loves about her grandparents. When the Midwestern couple got divorced, Grandpa Russell chased Grandma Betty across the country to California.
Against all odds, they fell back in love and remarried.
As a symbol of love, he got an anchor tattoo with her name on his arm. Years later, while he battled Alzheimer's disease, he miraculously seemed to remember her and nobody else.
"He had no fucking idea what was going on," says Molly, a cancer researcher from the Irvington neighborhood, "but he knew who she was because her name was right there on his arm."
She wanted to repeat that gesture of memory and loyalty with her husband.
"It's such a cute story that my husband and I both ended up getting one," she says, "but then he left me for his 26-year-old assistant. He turned out to be a dirtbag."
Now she can't bear to look at the anchor. "At first, I held out hope that we might be like [my grandparents] and get back together," she says, "but at some point, you have to let go."
As she left the center, Laura pulled a gray sweatshirt over her partly erased snake tattoo and smiled. The ink wouldn't be gone for several more sessions, but she felt better.
"I'm starting to feel more confident," she says. "I have regrets, but I'm starting to figure myself out."
Around 7 pm, Cascade owner Forrest Smith peeled a telephone headset from his ear, shut down his computer and tidied up a desk dotted with neon orange Post-it notes.
Smith likes fresh starts. They're what he's selling. "We are all trying to erase the past for a brighter future," he said. "There's nothing wrong with that."