Rethinking ink

Dec 15, 1999 at 12:00 am

When Jay Wheeler had two dragons and "a big crazy tree with a bunch of faces" inked on his arm, it was the cool thing to do. That was seven years ago, when he was 19.

Now he looks at his arm and wants to cover it up.

"That's when I was a rough guy, a wannabe," says Wheeler, who works as a tattoo artist and has about a half-dozen other tattoos. But for those reconsidering their once-cool choice of body art, there haven't been many ways to lose your tattoos. It's only been within the past eight years that successful tattoo removal has become a viable option. Sure, there were ways to erase "Mary loves Joe" after Joe ran off with Sue, but the procedure left terrible scarring. So, not only was Joe gone, but you had a scar to remind you of the louse he was.

Now, many of those who succumbed to one of the biggest trends of the 1990s are finding that they'd rather not carry those reminders (or emotional baggage) into the next millennium — or job interviews, for that matter.

So it's a good thing that now, with new laser technology, tattoos can be removed more effectively than ever. Essentially, a special laser passes through the skin and penetrates the ink directly, breaking it down. Gradually, the skin absorbs the ink and the tattoo disappears.

"People are extremely appreciative (of the procedure)," says Dr. Frederick Minkow of Bloomfield Laser. He started using a laser to remove tattoos four years ago, and last year he performed the procedure on 450 people. "Many are traumatized when reminded of a time of life they want to forget," he says. One of Minkow's patients had a swastika removed, but more common requests for removal are often due to divorce and new marriages — people (or their new partners) don't want lingering reminders of the past.

So, your new squeeze wants you to lose the Bugs Bunny on your ... wherever. Here's what you'll go through.

Minkow uses an Alexandrite laser, which is especially effective at removing blues, greens and yellows and rarely causes scarring. You'll pay about $150 per session, and it'll take two to five sessions to remove an amateur tattoo, six to eight for a professional one.

The deeper and more intricate the tattoo, the longer it will take to remove, as the laser beam only penetrates the skin to a certain depth. Once the tattoo starts to disappear, the laser goes further to the next layer of skin to continue the removal process.

Success depends on the colors and the type of dyes used: Reds and black are easiest to remove, greens and blues are the most difficult.

For people of color, it is more difficult to get pigment out, says Minkow. Another side effect, he adds, is that "it might cause temporary lightening, which will go away within six months to a year."

Don't expect to lose those tats overnight. The longer patients wait between visits, the more effective the removal process will be. Minkow recommends two to three months between, but up to a year is not uncommon.

For Jay Wheeler, the major side effect is not the slow process, but the pain. "It hurts very bad. It's a terrible experience," he says. "You put on creepy green goggles, the sound is terrible and you can smell the burning hairs. It hurts more than a tattoo — quite a bit more." Nevertheless, he plans to return for a final treatment before the end of the year.

Being snapped by a rubber band or sprayed by hot grease is how Eric Billips, a construction science engineer, describes how tattoo removal feels. "You can get anesthetic to numb it," he says.

Billips, 27, started treatment in 1996 at Bloomfield Laser, and returned eight times to have the tattoo of crossed hockey sticks overlaid with a shark removed from his right shoulder. His usual wait between treatments was three to seven months, and each visit cost $150.

Billips sought treatment after he had the shark added to the hockey sticks and decided it just didn't look right. "Aesthetically, it was just a bad job," he explains. "It was a mistake."

Now, his arm looks great, even though there is a slight scar in one little area. "But you really have to look at it."

Despite the pain, Billips recommends the procedure to anyone who wants their artwork removed: "The cost is not cheap, but the benefits of having it removed outweigh the costs in my mind." Unlike Wheeler, who wants to wipe his skin-canvas clean for a new tattoo, Billips has no plans to get another one — but he'll keep the two remaining tattoos on his left arm.

While tattoos were a major fashion trend of the '90s, removing them may be a major trend of the next decade. Currently, most patients seeking the removal procedure are between 25 and 35 years old, notes Rosanne LaLone, a medical assistant at the office of Stone and Iacovelli.

That's because that's the age when Gen-Xers are beginning to get serious about their careers, says Jim Carter, a recruiter with the Detroit-based job placement agency Technical Search Consultants. In his 20 years in job placement, the 51-year-old has never had a prospective employer request candidates without tattoos, but he does have some experience with what can happen when a tattoo is too visible.

Once, Carter recalls, he had a prospective employee with three teardrops tattooed under his eye. Carter sent the man on an interview, but he didn't get the job, and Carter was not surprised. Even so, his company has no policy regarding tattooed candidates. "If they have the background, then we send them," he says.

Carter is not against tattooing, but as a job recruiter he gives one piece of advice: "If you want to get one, don't do it in a noticeable place."

It's advice you could have gotten even before you got inked up. Because tattoos are associated with permanence, Ed DeLoney, a 60-year-old tattoo artist at Royal Oak Tattoo, says, "Pick something that represents you or a point in life you want to remember. Think about it long and hard. Tattoos are there for a very long time."