33% of Adolescents Regret Their Tattoos, Study Finds

Revenue from tattoo removal services have increased 440% over the last decade. How can we learn to live with regret?

Mike Tyson's face tattoo.
Mike Tyson doesn't regret his. "A lot of stuff happened out of this tattoo, a lot of good stuff," he said in 2016. (Photo Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images)

Caught in a whirlwind of passion, Justin Bieber tattooed Selena Gomez on his wrist—ink he now regrets. He’s not alone: Johnny Depp had to reimagine his affirmation to Winona Ryder on his shoulder. There are other reasons for tattoo regret. Demi Lovato needed a cover-up when her vagina tat no longer inspired, while Adam Levine can’t stand the “cauliflower sun” on his right shoulder. 

Tattoo regrets are not only for celebrities. Revenue from tattoo removal services have increased 440 per cent over the last decade; this particular service is projected to hit $83.2 million next year. It is an especially incredible number given that exactly zero tattoos are mandatory. These are all self-inflicted wounds creating an entire business model based on regret. 

According to New Yorker staff writer Kathryn Schulz, 17 per cent of Americans regret their tattoo decisions. One 2015 study in Colorado found that a third of tattooed adolescents would change their minds, though that number does appear to decrease as we age.

"Older respondents report less regret, and this part of the finding perhaps is more telling because at least some of these respondents got their tattoos when they were younger," write the authors of the 2015 study. "Men report more regret, and this finding most likely is due to their tendency to get larger tattoos and to get them in places that cannot be covered as easily as tattoos on women." 

A brand new tattoo on a woman's back expresses her desire for revenge. In 2001, Addictions Tattoo in Midway City, CA, was giving away free tattoos that express the feelings of nationalism that swept the US in anticipation of America's retaliation for the 9/11 terror attacks. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Schulz certainly regrets her tattoo. Unlike Bieber and Depp, who probably only regretted their decision when the serotonin and oxytocin dried up, she felt remorse the moment she walked out of the shop. 

Schulz uses tattoos as an entry point for discussing regret, which she defines as an emotion we feel when we believe the present can be better if only we’d done something differently in the past. While the quasi-New Age, quasi-hyper-masculine notion that humans should live without regret persists in our culture, she advocates for a more compassionate approach. 

If you want to be fully functional, and fully human, and fully humane, I think you need to learn to live not without regret, but with it.

According to Schulz, regret requires agency and imagination. That is, we have to realize we made a decision and we have to imagine a different choice could have existed. The more we have of either of these, the more acute the regret will be. 

Tattoos rank fifth in overall regrets. Parenting decisions rank fourth at 10 per cent; romantic decisions, 15 per cent; career is at second at 22 per cent; the winner is education, 32 per cent. Nearly a third of all regrets have to do with what we studied (or didn’t study). 

The four psychological components of regret are denial, bewilderment, punishment, and perseveration, which is when you focus on the same thing over and over and over. Schulz recalls lying in bed the evening after permanently sketching a compass on her shoulder. In her bewildered mind she repeated a common mantra of the aggrieved: “Make it go away.” Saying it once is not unusual; having it play on loop is perseveration. 

Instead of letting it fester, Schulz decided upon a different tack. She finds it healthier to expose yourself “to your own vulnerability in the face of an indifferent universe.” Staring at your regret in the mirror, painful as it seems, is better medicine than pretending it doesn’t exist.

Modern society makes it easy for us to avoid our problems. We simply need to unfriend or unfollow those we don’t agree with. Tech companies are even doing this job for us with filters that allow you to block words you don’t enjoy seeing or reaffirm your biases by repeating posts you enjoy. It's much harder to not only investigate opposing ideas, but to make peace with them. 

Larry Happ, 68, raises his arms to show his tattoos as he competes for the senior man largest tattoo during the Los Angeles Tattoo Convention. (Photo MATHILDE DE L'ECOTAIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Schulz offers three avenues for making peace with regret. First, take comfort in its universality. Unless you’re sociopathic (or have had a lobotomy), you’ll regret something, or many things. How you react to your reactions is indicative of your character. A life of remorse is not ideal. 

Laughing at yourself is her second remedy. This is often easier in hindsight, though some have trouble even entertaining the idea. A Buddhist approach—the simultaneous development of humility and compassion—is warranted in this regard. Laughter softens us, removes any perfectionist stain we’ve built up over time.

Which leads to the third: time heals all wounds, even permanent ink etched on your skin. These errant tattoos become reminders of a previous moment when that decision did in fact make sense. You learn how to chart progress based on your marks rather than dwell in their persistence. 

I have over 60 hours of tattoo work on my body, which leaves a lot of room for error. Yet I long ago decided to never regret any of them, even those small Chinese characters I added at age 18 in a questionable New Jersey establishment. While I have had one cover-up that ended up working out—due to a terrible job, not at the idea itself—I’ve yet to regret any tattoo decision thanks to a mental reframing. 

Would I have chosen some differently? Perhaps. But that wouldn’t have represented who I was at the moment I walked into the parlor. Each piece represents a stage of my life. I’m not alone in this regard: Pen & Ink is dedicated to narratives people build around their ink.

Schulz’s larger point goes beyond the repetitive punches of a tattoo gun. It’s a reminder to feel pain, to open yourself up to being vulnerable and remind yourself it’s okay to make poor decisions so long as they help you mature along the way.

The point is not to live without regrets. The point is to not hate ourselves for having them. We need to learn to love the flawed imperfect things that we create and to forgive ourselves for creating them. Regret doesn’t remind us that we did badly; it reminds us that we know we can do better. 


Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/4/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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