Disappearing Ink: People go to great lengths, spend big money to erase their youthful body-art decisions

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People go to great lengths, spend big money to erase their youthful body-art decisions

When Allen George groggily awoke one morning 30 years ago after a night of drinking with two Army buddies, he couldn’t figure out why his arm was stuck to the bedsheet.

A closer look revealed a large blood spot had soaked through and dried overnight. He carefully tore away the sheet and looked at his forearm.

Staring back at him was a large, brightly colored peacock sitting on a branch, the end of which sprouted an equally colorful flower, with a sun rising in the background.

“It was horrible,” G e o rg e said. “And it looked like anything but a peacock. I wanted it off right then.” But that w a s 1975 and it would be years before technology and the cost would both work in George’s favor enough to have the tattoo removed.

Had he opted to remove it then, he would likely have had to choose between dermabrasion and excision.

Dermabrasion is sanding a tattoo with a rotary abrasive instrument, causing the skin to peel. With excision, a surgeon removes the tattoo with a scalpel and closes the wound with stitches.

Neither option appealed to George.

Removal on the rise

While still pricey and painful, tattoo removal procedures have come a long way. And it’s growing in popularity as more people regret their typically youthful decisions.

In a recent survey, the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery found laser tattoo removal procedures rose 17 percent from 2001 to 2005.

While both dermabrasion and excision are still used on certain sizes and types of tattoos, for the most part, the laser has replaced the sander and the scalpel.

Lasers shoot short pulses of intense light through the top layers of the skin. The light is absorbed by the tattoo pigment, the pigment is broken up, and the smaller particles are removed by the body’s immune system.

Dr. Peter Kunz, a plastic surgeon in Carmel, said he has removed about 1,000 tattoos over the past decade by laser.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In 2001, 48,639 tattoos were removed by laser nationwide, according to the ASDS. No figures were available for tattoos removed by other methods.

Two years later, doctors used the laser to remove 61,772 names, symbols, dragons and assorted works of art off arms, legs, torsos, backs and every conceivable body part.

This year, another 54,866 tattoos are expected to be removed, the ASDS said.

Other local cosmetic surgeons, such as Jan Turkle of Turkle and Associates, said they are removing tattoos, but the procedures are not a huge portion of their practice.

George, a systems analyst with the Indianapolis division of United Water Inc., went to Kunz about seven years ago to begin the removal process. Tattoo removal typically involves many treatments over months-years, in George’s case.

Cost varies widely based on the tattoo’s size, age and colors used.

Blue and black are the easiest colors to remove; yellow and green the hardest. And an old tattoo is harder to remove than a new one. One applied by a less-experienced tattooist is usually more difficult to remove.

George’s 30-year-old peacock had a lot of green in it, some hidden beneath other colors. The tattoo was applied at a joint called Honest Charlie’s by an inexperienced tattooist who suggested George and his friends have a few drinks to numb the pain.

A case of beer and a fifth of tequila later, the trio returned to Honest Charlie’s, one of many tattoo parlors within walking distance of their Houston base.

The next thing George knew, he was waking up with his forearm covered in peacock.

“I can’t for the life of me figure out why I picked that for a tattoo,” George said. “It was huge.”

A long process

Kunz estimated George would need six laser treatments to remove the 4-inch-by-4-inch tattoo. Each treatment cost $300, plus a $50 rental fee for the laser. A special laser is needed for green pigment, so George paid a separate fee each time that one was used.

A minimum of three months must pass between treatments to allow the skin to heal.

“It’s really painful even with a topical ointment,” Kunz said. “I would never tell anyone it doesn’t hurt.”

George endured what he said felt like a rubberband being snapped on his arm 100 times in 10 minutes.

And he endured it 14 times over five years.

But Kunz had him pay only for the estimated six treatments and the laser rental fees. George’s $50 tattoo cost him about $3,000 to remove.

“It’s hard to know how many treatments a person will need,” Kunz said. “The dyes used are not FDA-approved. We don’t know what’s been added to them. There are lots of things that can reduce the effectiveness of laser treatments.”

Many motivations

People are shedding their tattoos for a lot of reasons.

As girlfriends and wives come and go, so must their names from the bicep. Certain career choices often don’t harmonize with visible body art. Letters that are cool tattooed across knuckles at 17 are anything but at 37. A butterfly artfully applied on the shoulder blade might make it difficult for the girl, now a mother, to deter her daughter from having a flowering vine tattooed across the small of her back.

Tattoos have rapidly been growing in popularity in recent years, especially with people in the 18-to-25 age group.

That popularity is sure to keep tattoo removals in demand in future years, experts say. That’s because as many as 50 percent of people with tattoos will eventually come to regret them, studies say.

New method

While the number of tattoos removed by laser this year is expected to be slightly fewer than in 2003, that does not necessarily mean fewer tattoos are being removed overall, said Laura Davis, associate executive director with ASDS. People are probably opting to have them removed in other ways.

One such method, Tat Gone Ink, is a tattoo-over process somewhat like a cover-up designed to diminish permanent cosmetics. The fluid, a neutrally colored ink made from the same type of ingredients used in tattoo inks, but without pigment, is applied with the same equipment used for tattooing.

The procedure requires no physician’s license, so it is being done at tattoo parlors.

Still painful, but less costly, this method costs $185 for the kit, plus $300 to $1,000 depending on the amount of work involved. Like the laser technique, Tat Gone Ink requires several treatments.

Tattoo artists at Indy Tattoo Works, on Girls School Road, have removed about 20 tattoos this way over the last four years.

“We’ve had really good results,” said JTA, Indy Tattoo Works owner. “But it’s just like a tattoo artist. They’re not all created equal. It really depends on the skill of the person doing the removal.”

Just as it does with the application.

“I just assumed that tattoo and artist went together in all cases,” said George, who didn’t know enough at the age of 17 to ask the right questions.

“I didn’t ask to see any of Honest Charlie’s work, but I certainly asked the doctor. I’m happy with the results.”

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