If you look closely, you can still see the name “Richard” in faded ink on Judy De Leon’s lower back.

The Pasadena mother of three got the tattoo 10 years ago as a tribute to her first son’s father. But after the pair split up, De Leon started to regret the decision.

“That was one of my biggest mistakes,” the 27-year-old said with a laugh. “When you’re young you do dumb things.”

Now engaged to another man, De Leon is in the middle of a yearlong process to have the tattoo removed. About once every other month, she makes the trip to a Beverly Hills office where specialists at Dr. Tattoff Inc. use a laser to break down the ink.

These days, there are a lot of people visiting the small Wilshire Boulevard clinic.

Dr. Tattoff is one of the first sizable companies dedicated to tattoo removal, which largely has been the domain of dermatologists and small startups.

Demand for the company’s services has exploded along with the popularity of tattoos: An estimated 45 million Americans have at least one, according to the Food and Drug Administration. One recent survey found that one in every seven inked individuals regrets getting a tattoo, yet removal specialists are still relatively uncommon.

Backed by an expert on tattoo removal procedures, Dr. Tattoff has waded into this nascent market. Its clients today range from professional athletes to suburban housewives to former gang members.

The company has also assembled a long list of celebrity clients, including actress Lea Michele and reality TV star Kat Von D – who makes her living giving tattoos. Recently, Eva Longoria had the company remove an inked tribute to her ex-husband.

The company performed 10,690 laser procedures during the last quarter, a 30 percent increase over a year earlier.

With business picking up, Dr. Tattoff, which has six clinics, mostly in Southern California, is preparing an aggressive growth campaign. Management recently signed a lease to open a Phoenix clinic next month, which will likely be followed by locations in Florida, Georgia and Texas. By the end of next year, executives hope to have as many as 20 offices.

The company is also taking the final steps to become a publicly traded company. After a reverse merger with a shell company, Dr. Tattoff is awaiting approval from regulators to enter the public market, expected by the end of the year. The move will not only provide liquidity to investors, but executives hope it will lend legitimacy to the growing business.

John Keefe, the company’s chief executive, said with such thin competition in a growing market, the opportunity is huge – and Dr. Tattoff is positioning itself to take advantage.

“Someone is going to do tattoo removal in a big way in this country over the course of the next 20 years,” he said. “No question about it.”

‘Unmet need’

For decades, specialists attempted to remove tattoos using a variety of rudimentary methods, including burning them off with acid or cutting out the skin.

Tattoos can be tricky to remove. Modern tattoo artists use electric machines outfitted with tiny needles that insert ink pigment into the dermis, a deep layer of the skin.

By the 1980s and ’90s, some dermatologists were using devices known as Q-switched lasers to break down ink pigments, which are then carried away by the body’s circulatory system. It wasn’t until about 2000, though, that lasers began to catch on commercially as demand for removal services grew.

That coincided with a cultural shift as tattoos, once associated with sailors, motorcycle gangs and ex-cons, went mainstream.

“In the ’80s, it was sort of unheard of to have a tattoo,” said Dr. Will Kirby, a board-certified dermatologist and co-founder of Dr. Tattoff. “Now, you go to the gym and every single person has a tattoo.”

In fact, Dr. Tattoff’s average customer is a woman between the ages of 20 and 40 who earns more than $50,000 a year and is a voter, according to the company’s internal research.

In 2004, Kirby, who was researching laser tattoo removal, teamed with James Morel, a former reality TV producer and entrepreneur, to start Dr. Tattoff and capitalize on the trend.

“I saw there was an unmet need, particularly in large cities like Los Angeles,” Kirby said.

The pair leased office space and a laser, but business was slow at the beginning.

Kirby said one of the biggest challenges has been simply educating consumers about the service. Many people – even those with tattoos and those in the medical field – don’t know how laser removal works, how effective it is, how much it costs or where to go to have it done.

Getting a tattoo removed is not quick or cheap.

Most patients need between five and 15 treatments, each spaced several weeks apart. Dr. Tattoff charges per square inch and the average tattoo costs about $1,200 to fully remove – about 10 times what it costs to get a tattoo.

Each session typically only takes a few minutes, as a specialist uses a small, penlike device to shoot quick bursts of a very hot laser into the inked area. It’s not comfortable, De Leon noted.

Now on her fifth session to remove her ex’s name, she said she had to squeeze a stress ball to calm her nerves during her first visit.

“It feels like little rubber bands hitting your back,” she said during a recent interview at the Dr. Tattoff office in Beverly Hills. “But you get used to it.”

There are a variety of factors that affect the success of the procedure. Black ink, for instance, is easier to remove than brightly colored pigments. Tattoos on the ankle or wrist are tougher than those on the neck or inner lip. Some tattoos disappear completely, while others only fade.

To reach potential customers, the company has marketed itself aggressively, attended tattoo conventions and employed search engine optimization strategies. Kirby’s brother, Ian Kirby, was brought in to head up the marketing efforts.

Just as Dr. Tattoff was beginning to catch on, though, the financial crisis nearly crippled the company. Management struggled to secure the financing needed to support its expanding operations. According to regulatory filings, opening clinics costs about $250,000 each, including equipment, personnel and marketing costs.

Growth potential

Though still small, the company had to lay off employees and put its growth plans on hold. Keefe, a health care industry veteran who joined Dr. Tattoff in late 2007, deferred his salary.

“The company was certainly financially challenged,” he said.

In 2010, management was able to raise $2.8 million from investors, which the company used in part to pay down debt and fund expansion. Around that time, the company also bolstered its board with several high-level appointments, including Eugene Bauer, the former dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine, who is now the chairman.

Business has risen steadily in recent years.

Dr. Tattoff recorded second quarter revenue of $790,000, up 7 percent from last year and more than double the levels prior to the recession, according to regulatory filings.

The company has now treated more than 18,000 patients since it started. Will Kirby said he realized just how wide the company’s reach had become when he was watching a National Basketball Association playoff game recently and realized that three of the players on the court were Dr. Tattoff clients.

Still, the company is not profitable, which Keefe attributed in part to the costs of setting up new clinics, including a Houston location opened in June. But he said he expects Dr. Tattoff to achieve consistently positive cash flow next year and profitability the year after.

The company believes its plans for a dramatic expansion will help. In addition to new locations in Phoenix and Atlanta, the company hopes to open second or third offices in some cities, which Keefe said would allow the company to leverage marketing costs. Management has identified 40 prospective markets, about half of which could have Dr. Tattoff offices before 2014.

“We’re ready to embark on a fairly rapid growth plan next year,” he said.

It’s not just Dr. Tattoff capitalizing on the growing demand.

Tat2BeGone Medical Group Inc., a small company in Costa Mesa, opened a second location last year and expects to expand to San Diego next year. Jerry Lorito, the company’s operations manager, said the company saw steady customer growth even during the recession.

“I think the tattoo removal market will continue to grow as people become more educated on the removal process,” he said.

Those prospects appeal to some investors.

Rainerio Reyes, a portfolio manager for Bridge Street Asset Management in Bloomfield, Conn., said he plans to make a personal investment in Dr. Tattoff. He said the company’s past problems have been due in part to a lack of capital, but that the business itself is promising. He also noted that the management team has been strengthened.

“I did a lot of due diligence before I decided to invest,” he said. “I think this is a great space. There really aren’t a lot of people doing laser tattoo removal, so it seems like the demand far outweighs the supply.”

Job prospects

There are common reasons people pay visits to Dr. Tattoff.

Like De Leon, a lot of people come to erase an ex-lover’s name, Kirby said. Nearly as many come to him after realizing the Chinese character stamped on their body doesn’t mean what they thought it did.

“I’d say we see that every day,” he said, adding that there seems to be a lot of people in particular that regret getting Tasmanian Devil tattoos.

But for many, the decision is fueled by concerns over job prospects.

Frank Moran, chief executive of TeamOne Staffing Services in West Los Angeles, said many job candidates today are facing a tougher time because of tattoos. Some companies have specific policies against visible tattoos, he noted, while other employers simply have a subconscious bias against tattooed job candidates.

“Absolutely,” he said, “having a visible tattoo is going to come into consideration by the person doing the interviewing and the person doing the hiring.”

That is something Derek Opperman knows firsthand.

On a whim a few years ago, the 26-year-old personal trainer, who recently moved to Los Angeles from Connecticut, got Thor’s hammer inked on his clavicle.

“I hated it right away,” he said.

But it wasn’t until the conspicuous mark started costing him jobs as a model that he looked into having it removed. After eight sessions with Dr. Tattoff, the hammer is little more than a faded line drawing.

“Every session it gets lighter and lighter, so I have no complaints,” he said. “It’s been great. They’re very professional, very organized. And there are a lot of cute girls that work here.”

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.