Ill-conceived or boring tattoos are painful to remove
July 21, 2012 4:00 AM
Kat Mahoney, photographed at the Aesthetic Laser Center through protective glasses, removes a tattoo Friday.
By Peter Sullivan Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Tattoos can be treasured marks of love, eye-catching designs or meaningful artistic expressions. But when a job interview comes around, a couple breaks up or another year passes, they can become permanent and regrettable stains in the skin.
A Harris poll this year found that 21 percent of American adults had a tattoo, up from 16 percent in 2003 and 14 percent in 2008. But as tattoos have grown in popularity, more inked Americans are trying to undo what were meant to be permanent additions to their bodies. There were 32 percent more tattoo removals in 2012 than in 2011, according to a study by The Patient's Guide, an online grouping of small medical publications.
"These violent delights have violent ends," read words scrolled around two flowers in a tattoo on Tina Garrubba's chest. She got the flowers when she was 15 and added the words, a quotation from "Romeo and Juliet," when she was 18.
"It was kind of spur-of-the-moment," she said. "Just like, 'I have money, let's go get a tattoo.' "
But now Ms. Garrubba, 22, a senior at Point Park University from Castle Shannon, is planning for graduate school and a career in psychology. That means getting the tattoo laser removed.
"I don't think anyone would hire me because of that," she said, referring to the tattoo. "It's right in the middle of my chest. I don't really like it anymore."
Ms. Garrubba's case is an example of two of the most common reasons for tattoo removal: improving employment prospects and growing tired of having one. Erasing the mark of an ended relationship is another major reason.
"Mostly it's people that have somebody's name on their body that they're no longer with or they have a really common tattoo and they're over it," said Bridget Miller, owner of East Side Laser Center in Shadyside, which removes tattoos. "Or they're in their 40s and they're just over it and their kids are saying, 'What are you doing with a tattoo, Mom?' or young fathers who don't want their kids to know they had a tattoo."
She said her business has seen about a 20 percent increase in tattoo removals in the past year. Dolphins, roses and fraternity or sorority emblems are among the designs that most frequently lead to boredom and removal, she said.
Blair Shaffer, who oversees treatment at the Aesthetic Skin & Laser Center in Lawrenceville, estimated a 50 percent increase in the center's tattoo removals in the past few years, which she attributes to more people getting tattoos in the first place.
"It's hard to even think of friends that don't have a tattoo at this point," she said.
A study presented this month at the British Association of Dermatologists found that nearly one-third of Britons with tattoos regretted getting one.
Lindsey Cook, a tattoo artist at Jester's Court Tattoos & More on the South Side, says the shop is becoming crowded with people who have watched new reality TV shows about tattoo artists and like the idea of having a tattoo, but do not know what design they want. She said to avoid tattoo regret, people should think about what they want specifically before going to get one.
"Anybody should get a tattoo as long as you genuinely want it," she said. "I take my job a little seriously, so I like people to take their tattoos a little seriously."
Removal of a regretted tattoo is a long, painful and expensive process.
Laser light is absorbed by the ink in a tattoo, heating it and breaking it down until the body eventually flushes it out through the lymphatic system.
Removing a tattoo that is just two inches across usually costs around $200 for each of six to 12 treatments. About four weeks of healing is needed between each.
There is wide variation in treatment time depending on the size of the tattoo, its color and its type of ink because different colors and types of ink respond differently to different lasers.
About 20 years ago the lasers used in tattoo removal improved from pulsing every millisecond, which causes scarring around the tattoo, to pulsing every nanosecond, which allows for a more targeted treatment that avoids scarring. These lasers have since been improved.
"The lasers are dramatically better than they were five or 10 years ago," said Eric Bernstein, a clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania who studies laser skin treatments. Some treatments that took six to 10 sessions now take four to eight.
Lasers are now being tested that can remove tattoos in a single day, with four treatments just 20 minutes apart. The problem is not having enough recovery time.
"Most people can barely get through the first treatment, let alone sitting there waiting for the next treatment," Ms. Miller said.
"It's like multiple very fast bee stings or simultaneously getting a rubber band snapped on your neck hundreds of times," said Marie Moisant, 37, of Mt. Lebanon.
She is getting a Star of David on her neck removed because she is joining the military as a chaplain and its policy bans tattoos on the neck or face.
But even before joining, Ms. Moisant, a non-denominational Christian, had tired of the tattoo.
"I had noticed over time, especially where there's a larger Jewish population, that people were sometimes offended by it," she said.
But she is happy to keep the proverb on her arm, butterfly on her back and rose on her heel.
Ms. Garrubba is also keeping seven other tattoos after removing the "Romeo and Juliet" quotation.
"I would maybe consider getting another tattoo," she said. "Just not someplace so noticeable."