Rethinking ink

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Tuesday, January 3, 2012 – Erie Times News
By ROBB FREDERICK

Treatments erase symbols of mistakes of youth, loves lost

The scissors made sense. Tiffany Young is a stylist. Scissors are a big part of her life. So when her boyfriend, at a bar, met a guy who drew tattoos, and who said he’d do one for $20, Young, 26, pulled her hair up, bent her neck and pointed to a spot beneath her right ear. “Here,” she said.

Want to guess how that went?

“He got creative on me,” Young said. He added a comb, a pink circle thing and a ring of polka dots.

“It was just way too big,” Young said. “I hated it. I hated it right away.”

She hated him for doing it. That’s the thing with tattoos: Of all the mistakes we make — the epic benders, the breakups and all of the walks of shame — only a tattoo is carried both in and on the skin.

It used to be a sailor’s regret. Now it’s a mom problem. Forty percent of Americans between 26 and 40 have at least one tattoo, according to the Pew Research Center. More than a few would like to have them removed.

Laser treatments can break tattoo ink into tiny pieces, which flush through the immune system. Saltwater treatments can force ink to the skin’s surface, where it scabs.

Both techniques are costly, and cause some pain. Young, who chose salt water, paid about $700 and needed at least six treatments. Her skin still looks different in that spot.

Tattoos once were a mark of outlaw status: the teardrop on the prison con, or the skull on the biker’s arm.

We’re past that. Spend an afternoon at Splash Lagoon Indoor Water Park Resort, and you’ll lose count of the dolphins, hearts, barbed wire and angel wings.

Tattoo regret takes just as many shapes. Often, it’s a breakup: a “Dustin forever” who just up and left.

“Names are huge,” said Stephanie Miller. She offers saltwater treatments at her Erie clinic, Dermagraphics by Miller. She charges $100 per half-hour.

She erases gang tattoos. She works on prison ink, which often is done with a needle and a Bic pen. Those are tricky, because the ink often is driven to different depths.

Every client has a story.

“You do feel bad for them,” Miller said. “They made a mistake, or they’ve changed, and they have to look at that every day.”

Some have lost jobs because of tattoo ink. Many businesses, including restaurants, still will not allow employees to have visible tattoos. The U.S. military and certain police units also have restrictions.

“They’re finding it difficult to get jobs, especially in this economy,” Miller said.

Amber Rodriguez, 24, is in college now. Her next step is a Pennsylvania police academy. But there’s a catch: To get a job as a state trooper or at the Transportation Security Administration, she has to lose at least two of her 20 tattoos.

Miller has been treating them with salt water. The process will take a full year, she said.

Rodriguez drives from Oil City for the treatments. Part of her is sorry to see the ink go.

“I wouldn’t say I regret getting them,” she said. “But most of the jobs I’ve been applying for would require me to at least cover up what’s on my hands. And buying the makeup to do that is a lot more expensive than having them removed.”

Miller started her machine. Rodriguez winced — it hurt, even with the anesthetic — and looked away. It’s always awkward, watching the person you were fade.

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