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All The Body's A Stage
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Kelly Brannigan was suffering from a case of tattoo remorse.
Just a year ago, Ms. Brannigan, 24, who holds up Case No. 24 as one of the models on the NBC game show “Deal or No Deal,” had been full of hope when she and her fiancé had each other’s names tattooed across their inner wrists.
But now, when she looks at the letters — P-A-T-R-I-C-K — she is reminded of the failed relationship.
For help, she turned to Dr. Tattoff, a chain of tattoo removal stores where nurses use lasers in a series of treatments to break down tattoo pigments. Dr. Tattoff is part of a growing industry catering to people who may not have thought about the implications of “forever” the first time around.
Removing tattoos is costly, uncomfortable and time-consuming, but the affinity for body art is so strong that some people say they do it to clear space to tattoo all over again.
Many dermatologists specialize in laser tattoo removal, and some laser hair-removal centers are adding services. In California, there are removal centers like Dr. Tattoff, Tat2BeGone and Tattoo MD.
Most of Dr. Tattoff’s clients are women ages 25 to 35, said James Morel, the chief executive of the company, which has given more than 13,000 tattoo laser treatments since opening here in 2004. “Maybe women are getting more tattoos than they used to,” Mr. Morel said, “or maybe they just have a higher level of tattoo regret than men.”
On the horizon is a development that could change the very nature of tattooing: a type of ink encapsulated in beads and designed to break up after one treatment with a special laser.
The technology for the ink, called Freedom-2, was developed by scientists from Massachusetts General Hospital, and Brown and Duke Universities. It is to go on sale this fall.
“We think the fence-sitters who always wanted a tattoo but have been afraid of the permanence will jump in and get tattoos,” said Martin Schmieg, the chief executive of Freedom-2. “But as your life changes from young to middle-aged to older, from single to married to divorced, you get tattoo regret, so we think the tattoo removal market will increase as well.”
There are no hard statistics on tattoo removal, but Catherine A. Kniker, a senior vice president for Candela, a laser manufacturer, calculated that Americans may have 100,000 laser tattoo removal treatments this year.
Tattoos have been used for centuries to reflect changes in life status, whether passage into adulthood or induction into a group like the military or a gang. In recent years, tattoos have also become a fashion accessory, a trend fueled by basketball players, bands and celebrities.
A report by the Food and Drug Administration estimated that as many as 45 million Americans have tattoos. The report based the number on the finding by a Harris Interactive Poll in 2003 that 16 percent of all adults and 36 percent of people 25 to 29 had at least one tattoo. The poll also found that 17 percent of tattooed Americans regretted it.
A tattoo that cost several hundred dollars could require several thousand dollars and many laser sessions to remove. Dr. Tattoff charges $39 per square inch of tattoo for each treatment.
Devices called Q-switched lasers are used to shatter tattoo pigment into particles that are cleared by the body’s lymphatic system. Full removal takes an average of eight treatments, spaced at least a month apart, using different Q-switched lasers for different-colored inks, said Dr. Suzanne Kilmer, a dermatologist and laser researcher in Sacramento.
Each treatment incrementally fades the tattoo. Some patients are left with pristine skin, others with a shadow or white spots, Dr. Kilmer said.
Many states allow nurses to perform laser treatments. But Dr. Kilmer said patients would be better off going to experienced dermatologists who owned a variety of lasers and were trained to treat possible complications like allergic reactions.
Some researchers are trying to determine whether tattoo removal treatments affect the lymph nodes. Researchers in Europe reported that lasers used on certain pigments had created toxic or carcinogenic byproducts.
“You would be concerned about where the pigment goes, how long it is there and at what concentrations,” said Paul C. Howard, director of the Center for Phototoxicology at the National Toxicology Program of the Food and Drug Administration, which is also researching pigments.
Still, last month, Dage Decuir, a comptroller at a construction company, was at Dr. Tattoff continuing treatments to remove a cat from her chest and a pig from her arm, which would otherwise distract from her strapless wedding gown.
Roger Rodriguez, himself a tattoo artist, was having an amateur tattoo removed. The tattoo — his mother’s name, Margarita, in wobbly calligraphy that had been partly covered with a sprawling tattoo of his last name — had been done when he was 12.
“The back is good real estate,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “We are bulldozing everything so I can have a blank canvas again.”
Recently, Dr. Eric F. Bernstein, a dermatologist and laser researcher in Bryn Mawr, Pa., was treating David Donch, of Collingswood, N.J.
Mr. Donch, a substitute teacher, wanted to erase black-and-white scenes of suffering souls and multicolored stained-glass windows that enveloped his lower right leg — a task that could take as many as 30 treatments, Dr. Bernstein said.
Mr. Donch said the treatments felt like rubber bands being snapped against his skin but that it was worth it. “As I am getting older and planning to start a family and get my teaching certificate, I am more aware that appearances are important,” Mr. Donch said.
Ms. Brannigan of “Deal or No Deal” said she was happy to see the name of her former fiancé fading from her wrist. She said she had learned an important lesson: “I’m not going to get a tattoo of another guy’s name until I get married.”
Published: June 17, 2007
The New York Times
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