When I was 18, I thought stubbornness was only a character flaw if you were wrong—and I was definitely right. A proud conservative, I preached fiscal responsibility, limited government, and personal accountability to anyone who would listen. And while normal people would have been content to hang George W. Bush campaign posters in their dorm rooms, I was so confident my feelings were fixed that I etched the GOP elephant onto my lower back. In other words: 20 years ago, I made a huge mistake.

I’m not alone in wanting a do-over: According to the Harris Poll, nearly a quarter of Americans who get tattoos regret them, and that number may be on the rise. Between 2020 and 2027, Allied Market Research predicts the ink-removal market will jump nearly 20 percent annually, reaching nearly $800 million. Much of that growth will be because more of us are getting tattoos, but it’s also due to greater awareness of removal technology. “People didn’t know we existed,” says Elias Gonzales, who works in customer service for the Denver outlet of the nationwide Removery Tattoo Removal & Fading chain and reports a recent blossoming of business. “We’ve become more of a household thing after putting out more marketing.”

At the same time, it’s clear a spike in interest in eradicating ink has coincided with COVID-19. From 2018 to 2019, Coloradans’ Google queries for “tattoo removal” were largely static. But searches for the term have soared over the past two years, peaking in January 2022. “We were shut down for seven weeks [in spring 2020 due to COVID-19 safety protocols],” says Christie Carlin, who owns Wise Choice Tattoo Removal in Capitol Hill, “and when I came back, I was fully booked. It was nonstop.”

Removals come with a cost. Patients must go under the laser every couple of months, donning safety goggles and lying still while technicians, licensed by the Colorado Medical Board, pulse through their top layer of skin to break up the ink. It feels like being splattered with bacon grease for a few minutes. (Carlin is especially cautious when treating people of color, as the laser can erase the pigment in their skin.) Then there’s the actual price tag. Wise Choice charges $79 per square inch, which explains why some people had to wait to book appointments until the pandemic struck: Stimulus checks injected discretionary income into their bank accounts.

Others, though, just wanted a fresh start. During the pandemic, people have reported increased feelings of regret, an emotion that festers in isolation. In her early 20s, Savannah Vecchiarelli got what she considered to be a spiritual image on her arm: a woman with a butterfly head experiencing an awakening. She’s crazy and colorful and very, very nude. “I don’t even know why I got a naked person put on my body!” Vecchiarelli, now 30, says. Trapped in the cocoon of her Denver apartment, she had a lot of time to look in the mirror and no longer felt connected with the bare-breasted butterfly looking back at her—just like I didn’t connect with the elephant anymore.

Yes, the Republican Party has changed. But I have, too. The tattoo was both a rebellion against my strict upbringing and an immature attempt to show the world that I was different from the liberal Boulderites with whom I went to school. Tattoos are a vibrant art, with many local artists creating pieces their owners will cherish forever. They’re also unavoidable reminders of the people we used to be. So, with the time and introspection the pandemic provided, I decided to call Carlin and give myself grace for my lamentable inking. For a few hundred dollars, I got a clean slate. What a bargain.

(Read more: Queer-Owned Tattoo Shops That Are Making Ink More Accessible

This article was originally published in 5280 May 2022.
Allyson Reedy
Allyson Reedy
Allyson Reedy is a freelance writer and ice cream fanatic living in Broomfield.