Erasing the past: Tattoo removal becoming popular in metro Detroit

Detroit Free Press Video

Article By Patricia Anstett published in Detroit Free Press- July 5, 2011.

The popularity of tattoos -- favored by some celebrities and athletes on seemingly every inch of their bodies -- has created a counter-trend of removal services for a growing number of the regretful.

The busiest metro Detroit medical team performs 80-100 procedures a week, mostly on teens to middle-age people.

"We've never had more patient demand for this procedure," said Dr. Jeffrey Orringer, a physician at the University of Michigan's Cosmetic Dermatology and Laser Center in Ann Arbor.

At a time when "tattoo" still ranks in the top 10 Web searches -- as it has for a decade -- tattoo removal has become a niche medical field of its own.

Technology has improved over the last decade that can now remove difficult greens and blues, providing first-ever opportunities for people who want to erase old memories, amateurish work, even misspelled words.

The removals can take as many as 15 painful treatments, four to six weeks apart, and sometimes costing 10 times the price of the original tattoo. In some cases, removal can discolor the skin and leave scars and blotches.

People with romantic regrets, such as actor Johnny Depp, go in for cover-ups and changes. The name "Winona Ryder," once tattooed on Depp's upper right arm, now says "Wino Forever."

Metro Detroiters finding reasons to say good-bye

Oh, the regrets. Names of former sweethearts. Amateurish work. Misspelled words.

Unwanted memories are driving tattoo removal to new heights as thousands pour into doctor's offices and tattoo parlors to erase or cover up old designs.

Career and lifestyle changes and stints in the military, which prohibits many larger, visible tattoos, also are driving the trend.

"I just grew out of it," said Sarah Parasiliti, 30, of Ortonville, who is undergoing the tattoo removal process on her lower right arm for a design of a bird over the word Sorelle -- sisters in Italian.

She and her two older sisters got the same tattoos in 2004. Now married with three young children, Parasiliti wants it off before she begins nursing school this fall. She doesn't want to be judged negatively, she said. But her sisters, keeping their tattoos, have given her some flack.

She needs at least eight treatments, at $139 per square inch.

Dr. David Schwartzenfeld, one of two physician-owners of Erase the Ink M.D., a Rochester Hills tattoo removal business, assured her he could remove 100% of the tattoo.

The practice sees about 50-60 patients a week. Its Web site, www.erasetheinkmd.com , posts a "Bad Tattoo of the Week." One photo shows a woman with two large, colorful pistols pointing downward from her stomach toward her bikini line. A black tattoo stretches across another patient's shoulders with the misspelled message of extreme ego: "I'm Awsome."

The center and others also are seeing a budding business in tattoo fading, using lasers to obliterate old work "to create a new canvas for an artist," Schwartzenfeld said.

Tattoo parlors also are getting in on the touch-up business. "We try to be creative and cover the old tattoo" with something better, said Duane Fager, a 30-year tattoo artist at House of Tattooing in Westland.

He and others bristle at the unprofessional work they see from tattoo parties in basements, garages and motels.

"There's a lot of stuff out there you wouldn't call art," said Calista Southard, manager of Detroit Custom 5250 Ink.

One design the business removed was intended to say "God Forgives."

It came out "God Fovgires."

Have you got time for pain?

A new generation of lasers is making removal easier and more effective. But it is still costly, time-consuming and painful.

"It's the most painful procedure we do," said Dr. Eric Seiger, a medical doctor with the Skin & Vein Center in Sterling Heights, Fenton and Garden City. The three locations together perform as many as 100 tattoo removal procedures a week.

Doctors pay as much as $225,000 for the latest tattoo removal equipment, including state-of-the-art, Q-switched YAG lasers that can now successfully treat a broader range of tattoo pigments.

Still, "it's very difficult to predict which tattoos" will respond to laser treatment, said Dr. Michael Margolis, co-owner of Erase the Ink.

Some tattoos, particularly large ones on darker skin done professionally with more than black ink may be tough, even impossible to remove, he and other doctors say.

The darker the skin, the greater the risk of discoloration from laser tattoo removal, and it can take several months, possibly years, before the area fades closer to a person's true skin tone.

Small, amateur drawings in black ink on fair skin are easier.

Kristie Bell, 39, of Stockbridge said she decided to have a rose tattoo on her chest removed because "it was much bigger than I wanted."

The rose, the size of a half-dollar, is almost gone after eight laser treatments at the University of Michigan's Cosmetic Dermatology and Laser Center.

"I'm not ashamed of it," she said. "It's just a personal decision."

Keeping up with the law

To rein in the field and improve patient safety, Michigan has a new law that took effect last year that limits tattooing to registered parlors and requires parental consent for minors. Many counties also have additional registration requirements.

As of this month, 348 facilities were registered with the state, with 35 pending applications.

But neither the state nor counties have effectively limited unlicensed artists advertising themselves on the Internet or at parties, said Michael Kucab, who oversees body art facility licensing for the Michigan Department of Community Health.

Part of the problem is that tattooing is not viewed by law enforcement agencies as a major priority, he said. He said Michigan gives half the $500 state registration fee to counties to enforce the law. It's also a major job to police tattoo services on the Internet. The law is new, and a database doesn't exist yet to chart arrests.

Tony Drautz, administrator of environmental health for the Oakland County Health Division, said the county has 46 registered tattoo parlors that are inspected twice a year. Each inspection costs the facility $250. If the county finds an unregistered site, it sends them a cease-and-desist order to stop doing tattoos or risk being put out of business, he said.

"We work with them, or they are no longer in operation," he said.

Contact Patricia Anstett: 313-222-5021 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.