Brander's remorse: what to do when your tattoo's appeal fades

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"The amount of regret we see is amazing," says Dr. Sachit Shah as he's about to perform a tattoo removal at Surrey's Beautiful Canadian Laser and Skincare Clinic.

Shah enters an office to find a patient with a homemade tattoo of a heart with an arrow through it and the letters S and M on either side. The patient's current wife, whose name clearly doesn't start with an S or an M, insisted that he undergo laser treatment to erase his former lover's initials from the inside of his forearm.

The procedure itself takes a little over a minute. Shah uses a state-of the-art MedLite C6 laser on the patient's tattoo. A red guiding beam traces over the tattoo and the laser smashes the ink pigment, which is then absorbed into the bloodstream and eventually excreted out the body. The laser emits a loud bang each time it touches skin, and the patient reports some discomfort, saying that it hurts as much as when he had the tattoo done in the first place.

After the procedure, the affected area of skin is inflamed and ghostly white. At first, his tattoo is nowhere to be seen, but as his skin recovers, faint traces of the crudely drawn tattoo return. After a few more sessions that will take place over the next year or so, the symbol of his decades-old romance will disappear completely.

Shah has seen a several-fold increase in patients looking to get rid of body art that was supposed to last a lifetime. When he first started removing tattoos in 2002, he would see only a handful of clients a week. Today, he often sees as many as 20 patients a day.

Shah attributes his increased business to the boom in body art over the past two decades. According to a 2002 study by Canadian Press and Léger Marketing, 13 percent of Canadian men and nine percent of women aged 18-34 have at least one tattoo. Not surprisingly, many of them end up having a change of heart. A 2002 study by the American Society of Dermatological Surgery found that up to 50 percent of people with tattoos end up regretting it after the fact. A 1999 study in the British Journal of Dermatology stated that up to three-quarters of people with tattoos want to have them removed.

The reasons people end up with buyer's remorse are numerous. Shah says almost half his patients come in shortly after getting a tattoo and want it erased immediately.

Unfortunately, they have to wait six months for the ink to settle before the removal process can start.

Many other patients come in because they mature and realize that the tattoos of barbed wire around their biceps or the Yosemite Sams on their ankles no longer reflect who they are. Shah regularly sees businesspeople who come in to have a tattoo removed from their arms so they no longer have to always wear long-sleeved shirts around coworkers. He also treats a lot of former gang members and ex-convicts who are looking to put their past behind them.

Then there are the people who come in because of a broken relationship. "I've had ladies have their ex's name removed and they literally cry when they have the procedure done," Shah says. "For them, it represents that the relationship is finally over."

"There's one fellow," he adds, "who insists on putting his name on his girlfriend's right buttock. I've seen four women who have the same name."

Shah believes that the number of tattoo removals will increase as today's young adults age. Says Shah: "I keep thinking of the people who get these tattoos on the belly and on the back. They're going to look disgusting in a few years. What happens is the white cells recognize the ink as a foreign substance and slowly eat away at the tattoo. Secondly, as skin gets more sun-damaged and ages, the tattoo ink will break down more and look fuzzy. It's not going to look neat and clean."

Fortunately, tattoo-removal technology has improved to help meet the growing demand. Shah now uses three different laser machines that are quicker and more effective than previous treatment methods. In the past, tattoos had to be removed by surgery or abrasives, treatments that often left significant scarring.

Shah warns, though, that laser treatment does not provide an easy answer for unwanted body art. Cosmetic laser sessions can be expensive and time-consuming. A session can cost anywhere from $100 to $2,000, depending on the size and colour of the tattoo (shades of green and yellow are harder to remove; black and blue respond the best). A client may need between four and 10 sessions at three-month intervals, meaning that it can take more than two years and thousands of dollars to eliminate a tattoo.

The removal process could become much easier if tattoo artists begin using a new type of removable ink that hit the market this year. New York based Freedom-2 Inc. recently released tattoo ink that can be eradicated with just one laser treatment.

It may be difficult to find a professional tattoo artist willing to use Freedom-2 ink. Many artists believe that the impermanence of the new ink takes away much of the significance of body art. "It makes people not think about what they're getting," says Justina Kervel, co-owner of the Liquid Amber tattoo parlour in Vancouver. "It just makes it easier to make poor decisions."

Instead, Kervel suggests, the best way to deal with tattoos, as with so many other health issues, is to focus on prevention. Ultimately, she says, if you have any doubt about getting a tattoo, you're probably better off not getting it.

"It's really good to make sure that you're 100-percent into the tattoo," she says. "If we hear any hint of someone being unsure about their tattoo, we don't do it. We really want people to think about it before they put anything on their body."

Links: Beautiful Canadian Laser and Skincare Clinic

Liquid Amber Tattoo

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