By JOYCE GANNON, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
PITTSBURGH — When his tattoo removal shops in Lawrenceville and Penn Hills reopened last spring after state-ordered business shutdowns to help curb the COVID-19 pandemic, Wes South noticed sales quickly surpassed what he expected from pent-up demand.
“Some people wanted to make some big, life-changing decisions,” said Mr. South. “Maybe they had more time to look in the mirror and saw tattoos they didn’t want post-COVID.”
Whether weeks spent in lockdown convinced clients to erase past mistakes or lighten their existing body art to prepare for future cover-ups, the surge in business helped Mr. South’s Disappearing Ink recoup some pandemic losses.
“We are doing crazy numbers now,” he said. “I’m not complaining.”
Last month, he sold Disappearing Ink’s Pittsburgh locations — as well as one in Honolulu — to Removery, a Texas-based company that is scooping up tattoo removal firms across North America.
Mr. South, 36, and his brother, Ian South, 26, have joined Removery to run the Pittsburgh and Hawaii studios and will help their new parent firm expand to more locations.
The sale price was not disclosed.
Removery last week announced it was buying Disappearing Ink along with a tattoo removal business in the Cincinnati area, bringing its current holdings to 45 studios in the U.S., Canada and Australia.
Removery also owns a location in Robinson, which was formerly owned by Invisible Ink.
In a statement, Removery said it plans to grow to 200-plus clinics in North America over the next five years.
Fueling its expansion is a $50 million commitment earlier this year from activist fund Elliott Investment Management, which has holdings in large public companies, including Twitter and Duke Energy.
“We believe Removery has significant growth potential ahead as the company expands to meet the needs of an underserved market,” Elliott said in a statement in January when it announced its stake in Removery.
Headquartered in Austin, Texas, Removery was created in 2019 through the merger of four tattoo removal firms, including Invisible Ink.
Prior to the $50 million commitment by Elliott, the privately held business was funded by Australian investors.
Mr. South, now a studio manager with Removery, said the acquisition provides his business with upgraded laser equipment it uses for removals and fading and a large network of experts and referrals.
“I’m very, very happy with (Removery),” he said. “We will be able to work with the best removal technicians in the country.”
The tattoo removal market has been growing rapidly — even before the pandemic — because of technology improvements and increased awareness that removal can be a safe option for many who are rethinking tattoos they’ve been wearing for years.
A report last week from Kenneth Research, New York, projected the global market for removals, including procedures performed by dermatologists, medical spas and laser technicians such as those at Removery, will grow to $4.8 billion by 2023.
North America comprises the largest market share, the report said.
Sample prices posted on Removery’s website include packages starting at $990 to remove a ring finger tattoo, $1,690 for wrist tattoo removal and $3,990 for removal of a chest tattoo.
The age of the tattoo, its density and size are all factors in pricing, said Mr. South.
His business grew steadily after it opened in 2013.
“I’d go out wearing my Disappearing Ink T-shirt and would book people wherever I went … standing in line at the bank, playing games at the casino,” he said.
Mr. South, a certified laser technician, moved to Hawaii in 2019 to open the Honolulu location inside an existing tattoo shop in the busy tourist district of Waikiki Beach.
Last summer, a laser technician in Boston called the Honolulu shop seeking a referral for a Boston client who was moving to Hawaii.
Mr. South learned the technician’s firm was merging with Removery and became curious about the company.
He connected with Removery’s chairman, Mark Evans, “who seemed like the kind of owner I wanted to work with,” said Mr. South.
He recently returned to Pittsburgh to help oversee the business transition, while Ian South is relocating to Honolulu to work on sales and marketing and help operate that location.
The brothers have four employees who are staying on as part of the acquisition. They hope to hire another laser technician.
During the pandemic, Disappearing Ink secured two federal Paycheck Protection Program loans totaling about $60,000.
“COVID was terrifying,” said Mr. South. “Our business was one of the most sanitary places you could ever enter before COVID. It’s surgery-level clean. So I wasn’t worried about that. But were people going to be willing to come back?”
For its reopening, Disappearing Ink staggered appointments and prohibited people from sitting in waiting rooms.
Those adjustments meant longer hours for staff, but the effort paid off, said Mr. South.
“Our customers are just so appreciative about being able to get this thing removed that’s really altered their life for a long time. They’re making a positive change.”
Mr. South avoided wearing shorts for years because of a leg tattoo he abhorred.
“It ruined my life,” he said.
It’s been removed, and his right leg is now bare. But that doesn’t mean he’s against ink, considering the tattoos covering his left leg, back and arms.
“No way are we anti-tattoo,” he said. “We provide tattoo removal by people that love tattoos. I have a lot of tattoos, and I’ve had a lot removed. I know what it’s like to have tattoos you hate.”