Under my skin

The story of a tattoo and whether it should stay or go.

Published June 23, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Every tattoo tells a story. Mine tells a story about a story. I got it to commemorate my first fiction publication in a literary magazine -- a minor milestone that, at the time, seemed so epic and momentous I wanted the occasion memorialized in my flesh for all eternity.

Flash Gordon was the name of my tattooist. He had an ordinary name -- Robert or Richard Gordon, I think -- but Flash was the name on his business card. (A quick hint for the uninitiated: The walls in tattoo studios are covered floor to ceiling with sheets of illustrations, and these sheets, which the prospective tattooee pores over to choose a design, are called "flash." Hence Mr. Gordon's nom de plume.)

You have 10 zillion designs to choose from. You have tribal tattoos; you have Celtic tattoos. You have biker babes with torpedo boobs straddling Harleys; you have Jesus Christ stranded on the cross. You have tigers, unicorns, dragons and gargoyles; you have Jimi Hendrix and Yosemite Sam, Bruce Lee and Betty Boop -- all creatures of the incarnate and cartoon worlds are available for inscription in your epidermis.

I chose the theater symbol of comedy and tragedy -- those two masks, one laughing hysterically, the other sad-eyed and pouting. They say you choose a particular tattoo design as an advertisement for your self-definition. I chose mine because I saw it as an external mark of the private interplay of joy and melancholy that's de rigueur for all tortured writer types, and because the drama symbol seemed related to literature, if only tangentially -- and because I thought the design looked, you know, cool.

Tattooists will put your tattoo wherever you say, pretty much, though some charge extra to work on your butt, and the more discriminating artists won't work above your neck or below your wrists -- those taboo territories known as "public skin." Anyway, my tattoo went on my deltoid. No mystery there: The upper arm is one of the fleshier -- and therefore less excruciating -- places you can put a tattoo.

The tattooist shaves the peach fuzz from the tattoo area and dabs your skin with antiseptic. He traces your chosen design from the flash sheet, then uses an acetate stencil to transfer the sketch onto you. Finally he mixes the inks to get the desired colors. Applying the tattoo is a two-handed job. The tattooist stretches your skin taut with one hand and manipulates the machine with the other. The machine is a drill-like apparatus equipped with stainless steel needles that stab thousands of tiny holes in your skin and deposit the ink in the holes.

So you walk out of the studio with your brand-new tattoo. You feel good. You feel nonconformist. Years pass. You get married, you get a house -- maybe a kid's on the way. You begin to view life in the long term.

Unless you live your whole life among vampire zombies of the we-only-come-out-at-night school, having a tattooed body, sooner or later, presents some awkward social moments. You avoid pool parties hosted by your preppie neighbors. You're reluctant to strip down bare-chested. Getting dressed in hot weather, you face the daily dichotomy: conceal or display? Sometimes, you just want the damn thing to disappear.

Now this isn't another gloomy tale of Mr. Grown-Up's Regret -- some namby-pamby urge to dispose of the blemishes of youth's indiscretions. But there do come certain moments in adult life, in the long lull of Sunday afternoons, when your mind wanders toward themes of restoration and renewal. If you're tattooed, you may experience a sudden desire to start over fresh. To make of your flesh a tabula rasa. To be reborn in your untainted birthday suit. These are the underpinnings of my rationale, my vague motives, when I decide to investigate tattoo removal.

Unlike the process of getting a tattoo, removing one is a high-tech, highly clinical procedure.
The machine used for tattoo removal is called a Q-switched Ruby Laser. It's a boxy monolith the size of a Xerox copier, with an LED panel and a dizzying array of buttons and switches. The machine has a hinged arm fixed onto a turret, like a dental drill, and at the business end of the arm is the tattoo-blaster itself -- the tube-shaped thingamajig that produces the laser beam. The laser, shooting pulses of radiated light into your epidermis at nanosecond intervals, explodes the tattoo ink into a zillion tiny particles. Your body absorbs the particles, and they wash away in your bloodstream.

When it comes to tattoo removal, it's the laser technicians -- like dental hygienists and labor nurses -- who do most of the dirty work, while the doctors get all the glory. So the techs are the ones best able to answer questions like this one: How bad will it hurt?

"It's painful," says Linda Griffin, a registered nurse who performs tattoo removals at the Center for Dermatologic Laser Surgery in Washington. "It feels like a huge rubber band snapping against your skin. Then it feels like sunburn for about an hour afterward."

"Topically, it is painful," says Larry Sumlin, a medical assistant at Central Medical Clinic in Clearwater, Fla. "Most patients claim that it feels like flecks of bacon grease spattering on their skin."

A topical anesthetic is applied to the tattooed area, but if you're worried about the pain you can usually get sedation. A professional tattoo may require anywhere from three to 10 laser sessions, each session spaced about a month apart, with the exact number of treatments depending on the type and amount of inks used in your tattoo. Black, blue and red are the easiest to remove. Orange and purple are harder, green and yellow harder still. The total cost can range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand, depending on the inks, size and intricacy of your tattoo.

So why do patients endure the pain and spend the boatload of cash to get their tattoos zapped? In most cases, it's because they want to rid themselves of the past. "They say, 'I was young and stupid.' It's something that embarrasses them now," Sumlin says. "It's like painting your house pink. It seems like a good idea at the time, but later you change your mind. Hindsight is 20/20."

"They got it done when they were young, and now they're professionals," says Griffin. "You see girls with ankle tattoos, and now they have to wear pantyhose to work. They're sick of it."

Lost love is another prime motivator. "We remove a lot of girlfriend names, boyfriend names," says Christi Smith, laser supervisor at the Laser Institute of Georgia. It's an old, familiar story: Dick tattoos Jane's name across his chest, but then the romance falls apart -- "and they want it off right away," says Smith. "They've had it. But a lot of people don't know there's a way to get tattoos removed."

In fact, there's more than one way. The old-school methods of tattoo removal include surgical excision (cutting the tattoo out), dermabrasion (scrubbing away the tattooed skin layers), salabrasion (using salt to scrape the tattoo area) and chemical peels (using acid to burn away layers of skin). But all these techniques hurt like the devil and, in place of the tattoos, leave ugly scars.

Laser surgery is far and away the preferred method. Doctors and laser technicians say there are absolutely no health dangers, side effects or lasting scars from the procedure. "It's the safest way to have a tattoo removed," Smith says. "And it does not leave scarring. You may see some lightening or darkening of the skin, but it corrects itself over time."

Does the tattoo completely disappear? "It depends on the [ink] colors," Griffin says. "Sometimes it looks like a little bruise, but you'd never guess a tattoo used to be there. It becomes unrecognizable to the casual observer."

Sumlin says, "Lighter-skinned people may have some ink residue. But generally you get 99 percent disappearance."

Most laser surgery centers offer potential customers a personal consultation that can range in cost anywhere from "complimentary" to about $100. You go in, get your tattoo assessed, and receive an estimate on the cost of removal.

To undo, or not to undo -- that's the question. It's been nine years since Flash Gordon marked up my schoolboy flesh, and looking back -- pondering the laser's purifying beam, weighing the pros and cons -- I wonder: Does the tattooist remember you? Or do you fade into the inky mix, another nameless patch of skin on the long road of epidermis he doodles down? And years later, if you consider ditching your tattoo, does the tattooist -- the creator, wherever he is -- experience a psychic premonition of loss and send telepathic messengers ghosting through the ether to purr in your ear, "Don't."

I won't, Flash Gordon, I won't. I'm saying no thanks to the laser beam. Starting over fresh is famously refreshing, but there's something to be said, too, for preserving the past. I'll keep my tattoo and wear it as a shield against forgetfulness, because, after all, it's the mark on me of a landmark thrill in life's uneven landscape -- a success story written in flesh.

By Jon Bowen

Jon Bowen is a frequent contributor to Salon.


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