Photos by Caitlin Abrams
Aleks Nedich of FadeAway
Aleks Nedich bears both the deepest past and the likeliest future of tattooing right on his two arms. The past is written in traditional Polynesian tattoos, deep aqua-gray, tapped in with wood and bone. He got them over the five years he lived in Tahiti, while he was exploring the origins of tattoo, and falling in love with his future wife, Rava. The future of American tattooing is there on his arms too, represented by great blank fields, plain skin now edged around with Polynesian tattoos. Those blank fields once bore large, traditional American tattoos that Nedich eventually concluded were not good—so he lasered them off.
These blank stretches of skin look for all the world as if they’ve never been inked, and when Nedich flies around the country consulting with the dozens of different tattoo parlors and plastic surgeons who have hired him to create turnkey laser clinics in their own shops, Nedich’s arms help him explain what it means to make something permanent disappear.
Today, Nedich owns FadeAway, a tattoo-removal parlor with three locations in Northeast Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth. He also has a proprietary medical software system he uses to track and coordinate laser tattoo removal, and is about to start franchising the concept. Will FadeAway be as common as SuperCuts in America’s retail future? If so, it will be because of a St. Paul–born Serbian-American who once escorted Queen Latifah through her afternoon of shopping at City Center, and cares deeply about tattoos.
Nedich ended up in St. Paul through good deeds. When his parents were fleeing Iron Curtain Yugoslavia, and had set themselves up in a small apartment in Vienna, they happened to meet another refugee, and invited her to live in their little foothold with them. She stayed for months, and then went to join family in America. Years later, a letter arrived: Her brother was a priest in South St. Paul, and wanted to return their kindness by sponsoring them to live in the United States.
Nedich, now 41, grew up mainly in Cottage Grove, bored. He dropped out of high school and worked as a bouncer at the door at First Avenue, putting to use the fact that he has steely but kind eyes, and is built like a brick wall. That’s where he got to see Beck play the 7th Street Entry, and was assigned duties of showing Queen Latifah around the city so she could get some shopping done. That’s also where he fell in love with tattooing, began acquiring ink, and learned to pierce. The more he learned about tattooing, though, the more he wanted to learn. So he went to Tahiti.
“The difference between an indigenous Polynesian tattoo and a Westernized tattoo,” says Nedich, “in the islands a tattoo would represent your lineage, your work, your children. It was often gifted to you by an elder, and became an essential part of your life story and identity. In Western culture, the tradition was always more: You walk into a shop and point to a picture of a rose on the wall and say, ‘That.’ A lot of time here, we like to get tattoos to stand out in society, or say something against society, and in my opinion it’s not as deep a purpose as traditional Polynesian tattooing.
“When I went to Tahiti, it flipped everything I thought I knew about tattooing on its head,” Nedich says. “There are a lot of American traditionalists who say: ‘You have to get back to the roots,’ by which they mean anchors and hearts. Those are great, but our tattooing wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for their tattooing, and it doesn’t go the other way.”
After his experiences, Nedich became one of America’s top traditional Polynesian tattoo artists. He still takes some clients for traditional Polynesian tattoos, which he designs after long consults, and relies on his knowledge of the traditional pictorial language.
“If you want me to do a Polynesian version of how much you love red Corvettes, it’s not going to happen,” he explains. “But if you’re trying to explain a life story, that you went through a dark time, went through a divorce, had drug problems, but are moving into the light, that can be done.” The greatest part of Nedich’s time these days, though, is not devoted to tattoo design, but to creating fresh blank slates out of previously inked ones.
“When I first started tattooing, it was the 1990s. There was a big boom, and I could see: There’s going to be a boom in tattoo removal,” remembers Nedich. He approached an emergency room doctor, Thomas Barrows, who grew up next door to the Nedich family in Cottage Grove and was Nedich’s older brother’s best friend, about his idea: What if they offered laser removal in a tattoo parlor? He needed a doctor to be licensed by the state.
The Northeast Minneapolis clinic has the same rock-and-roll cool vibe as the tattoo parlor next door, Northeast Tattoo, which Nedich also owns, with deep-teal walls hung with the Balinese woodcarvings Nedich collects. Nearly 375 people come through each month to get their tattoos removed. Customers are 70 percent women, Nedich guesses, and of the 30 percent of the men who pass through, a good half of those are simply clearing up a tattoo that they don’t like, to make room for a new one. The clientele is, more or less, exactly the same clientele who walked in the door the first time. Now, they’re older and less gung-ho.
While I sat with Nedich in his lobby talking about his clientele, I saw a young blonde in yoga pants clutching a $1,200 Louis Vuitton bag dash in to get a little critter off her ankle. I saw a tanned, bleached weight-lifter in a track suit getting who knows what removed from who knows where. Nedich guesses he has personally lasered every inch of the human body, from inside the mouth to inside intimate boundaries. I also saw someone who stumbled in off the street, half drunk, to inquire about the big blotch of a homemade tattoo on his forearm. No one felt judged. And they were all united by the same quandary: What do you do when the you who you are today is still carrying around choices made by the you of long ago?
To understand how tattoo removal works, Nedich says, picture your tattoo as a big boulder in the middle of a road. The first time you blast it with a laser, you get it down to some big rocks and some gravel. Your lymphatic system then comes through like a rain and gets the gravel away. The next time you blast it, still smaller rocks and gravel. The lymphatic system enters again. This might go on for six months, every eight weeks, or longer for a very large piece. Whether an individual ends up with totally pristine skin depends on their own body, and sometimes on the initial tattooing, which may have left scars.
Unlike the competition they faced when they started, FadeAway charges by the session and by the area and time required instead of having customers commit to multiple packages or to the entire removal. (For example, a dime-sized tattoo costs less to get rid of than a whole-back piece.)
Nedich says the main qualities a good tattoo laser removal artist needs mirror those of a good First Avenue bar bouncer: You have to be a people-person who can get along with people from all walks of life, even when they are not at their best. In the course of an hour, a laser-removal specialist might be sitting with a corporate attorney regretting a spring break from 20 years ago and telling an ex-con with Crips ink on his face to hold still. Both clients will have the same questions—about pain, money, and whether it will work.
“When I first started this,” Nedich says, “all the tattoo traditionalists would say, ‘What you’re doing is sacrilege. Tattoos are meant to be permanent.’ Years later they were saying, ‘Well, yeah, you can’t get a good new tattoo if you’ve got something in the way. I need a laser!’” As Nedich gears up to take FadeAway national, this much looks unchangeable: In the future of American tattooing, nothing goes down on your permanent record.