Tattoo removals, Olivia Berckley will tell you, are a pain -- physically, mentally and financially.
On a recent afternoon, the 25-year-old Los Angeles women was trying not to wince as the doctor aimed a laser at the multicolored, fire-breathing dragon covering her otherwise porcelain-skinned upper arm.
Within minutes, the skin surrounding the 4-by-4-inch tattoo glowed a deep sunburned red. With each rat-a-tat of the laser, a tiny dot of skin puffed up like a blister and wept a droplet of blood.
"Next time I want the numbing cream," Berckley told the doctor tersely.
Like legions of Americans, Berckley is willing to endure repeated discomfort, shell out thousands of dollars and devote considerable time to having her body art relegated to nothing more than a memory. Across the country, tattoo removal is skyrocketing. Almost all of the procedures now are laser removals, which increased 27% from 2001 to 2003, according to the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery.
The trend comes hand in hand, of course, with a growth in the number of people getting tattoos. No one keeps official statistics on tattoo application or removal, but the American Academy of Dermatology says the number of tattoo studios in the United States increased from 300 to more than 4,000 in the past 20 years. An estimated 10 million Americans now sport tattoos.
But that 5-inch surfboard adorning a college student's arm may not look so great when he's 28 and seeking a promotion at his accounting firm.
People who regret their tattoos are highly motivated to get rid of them, doctors say. "They'll spit blood to get them off," said Dr. Harold Lancer, a dermatologic surgeon in Beverly Hills.
The explosion of laser technology has made it possible to do just that. Almost a decade of studies on laser tattoo removal has taught doctors how to remove a wide variety of inks and colors from a variety of skin types while minimizing the risk of scarring.
With two treatments behind her -- and six to eight more ahead, Berckley can't wait to wear short-sleeved shirts without worrying what people will think of her tattoo. She had chosen the dragon after spending an hour browsing among the sample artwork provided at a local tattoo parlor one week after her 18th birthday, the legal age for obtaining a tattoo without a guardian's permission. She began to wonder if she'd made a mistake when she got home that evening and showed her mother.
"My mom said, 'I can't believe you got it on your right arm -- and I can't believe it's a dragon,' " Berckley recalls. "At the time, I couldn't wait to get one.... I thought I'd never get tired of it."
By age 22, the tattoo had become "less appealing." When she was married last year, Berckley selected the bare-shouldered wedding dress of her dreams but added shoulder-length gloves to cover the tattoo.
"I started thinking of the way people perceived me; something I didn't think of when I got it," she said.
Berckley paid $100 for her tattoo and will part with close to $3,000 for the removal. Each laser session is about $300. "It's worth it to me to have it removed," she said, while Dr. Stuart Kaplan of Beverly Hills applied gauze to her lasered shoulder. "A little bit of scarring isn't going to bother me as much as the tattoo."
Gilbert Arias, 38, is also a different person than he was at 14, when he got his first tattoo. He is no longer a gang member; he's a phone technician supervisor with a wife and three daughters. "I'm a family man now," he said recently in Dr. Gary Lask's office at the UCLA Dermatology Center.
"About seven years ago, I started thinking about removing some of them," the Whittier man said of his 12 tattoos, which include a teardrop under his left eye, praying hands on his neck (which once landed him in jail because it was similar to a tattoo worn by someone wanted by the police), a peacock on the right arm, "I'll always love my momma" on the left arm and a gang symbol, also on his left arm.
"I grew up," said Arias, who proudly displayed before and after photos of his disappearing tattoos. "And people stereotype people with tattoos."
Technique takes off
Tattoos are created when colored pigment is injected into small holes in the dermis, the deep layer of skin under the top layer. Prior to the advent of high-tech lasers about a decade ago, removing ink from the dermis was a nasty process. Smaller tattoos were usually cut out; larger tattoos were scratched off, along with layers of skin. Scarring, sometimes severe, was inevitable.
Although lasers have been used to remove tattoos for about 10 years, mastery of tattoo removal has been gradual and consumer acceptance of the procedure has been slow.