For a long time, tattoos were a preserve of a certain clique of people: gangsters and bikers. But in this new age, a tattoo is a way of celebrating success, getting over pain, starting a new chapter in life, or for no reason whatsoever.
The tattoo industry has opened many job opportunities for young Kenyans sketching and inking different parts of their bodies.
But now demand is shifting to the removal business.
Caroline Nduta, a high-school teacher has been hiding her tattoo on her right foot with make-up that matches her skin tone. For Kenyans working for conservative employers, it is either you covered the tattoo with long-sleeved jackets or removed it.
“For the last six months, I have applied make-up to cover it so that I cannot be a bad influence on the young girls I teach,” she says.
Instead of struggling to cover tattoos, Richard Wanjohi, a tattooist at Vintage Ink and Piercing Parlor in Nyeri, says more people are coming in to remove them using laser technology.
The technology is also used to cover scars, freckles, and stretch marks or permanently remove unwanted hair.
“It is using the skin tone of my client to cover any blemish they do not desire on their skin… the industry is budding,” he says.
“It is efficient in the sense that once it is removed and healed, it matches with the normal skin colour that no one can tell there once was a tattoo,” he adds.
At dermatology clinics in Nairobi such as Avane, a specialist assesses the tattoo, its size and colour before recommending laser treatment which takes more than one session.
Mr Wanjohi started his business four years ago, having nurtured the skill of pencil drawing from primary school. For each client who comes in for tattoo removal, he charges them between Sh3,500 to Sh4,000 per session, for up to eight sessions.
Besides tattooing and removal, he also does dermal piercing, which is also known as the single point is piercing. This is where the dermal does not have a separate entry and exit point as is the case in traditional piercing.
“Using this removal technology we are giving people a second chance as mostly they want modern tattoos to erase those they did with needle and ink as well as helping people live their true self,” he says.
Most of his customers regret their tattoos after love has gone sour, or as they pursue new careers such as the military.
Victor Karugu who operates the Kwemz Tattoo in Nairobi said the minimum session for tattoo removal is four for smaller tattoos with dark ink while those with red and green ink take up to 12 sessions.
In his business, tattoo removal goes from between Sh3,500 to Sh70, 000.
When a client is underage, Mr Karugu says one must be accompanied by their parent or guardian.
The laser machine has a beam that is pointed at the tattoo drawing and is more painful than getting the tattoo itself and costs more than the drawing.
During the removal, a client can opt for a numbing treatment, at an extra cost. For those that are on delicate areas such as the neck where there are numerous veins, tattoo removal is supervised by a doctor who also administers the numbing injection.
As a professional tattoo artist, one should stay away from drug abuse so as to have steady hands to avoid shaking.
“You must have perfected your art on paper before you can draw on someone’s skin,” Mr Karugu says.
Some inks react with someone’s skin, especially the coloured ones.
“It is a very painful procedure and some clients react to the treatment but we have introduced a policy where client signs waiver indicating that we are not liable in case they react due to medical problems they suffer,” he says.
After the tattoo is drawn or removed, one should not expose it to the sun or submerge it in the water though clients are advised to maintain hygiene.
As the industry grows, one would expect the costs of items used to drop, but they have not, locking out many from joining the business.
“The biggest challenge in this trade is prices of tools which we must import. Tattoo ink used to go for Sh5,000, but now it is Sh7,500. The needles are now going for Sh1,500 from Sh900, “ he says.