Tattoo removal can put the past behind you

Author: Lauren Abdel-Razzaq

Detroit – For longer than half his lifetime, whenever Jose Vargas looked in the mirror, he saw three tiny dots near the corner of his left eye – tattoos he had done when he was 17 and living much differently than he is now.

"It was a symbol of my crazy life," said Vargas, a former gang member who spent six years in prison. Now 35, out on parole for three months, holding down a steady job and paying for his own apartment, the Detroiter is ready to put his past behind him.

That's why, on Thursday, he sat stoically through the stinging as a doctor from Bostford Hospital used a laser to zap away the tattoo on his face. It was his second treatment, and he'll have to come back for more before the ink will fade completely, but it's already given him a new outlook on life.

"It's a relief to know I can finally get away from that youth on the streets doing harm to others," he said. "I have a heart and I care and I can be a good member of society."

Vargas is one of the dozens who have had their gang or prison tattoos faded or removed for free through the Freedom Ink program at the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation. The idea, says program coordinator James Phillips, is to gi! ve people who want to change their lives the best chance to succeed.

Phillips said the program, which dates to 1997, "increases their ability to get hired."

"It's just the freedom of being able to move back and forth without fear," he said.

Mark Stebbins, 48, got his tattoo, a shakily-done design around his wrist and forearm, when he was in prison in 1998. Now that he's out and trying to find a job, he's decided to have it removed.
"I've been looking everywhere for a job and I've noticed employers looking at my arms," he said during a removal treatment Thursday , as he struggled through pain he described as "a thousand bee stings burning."

Tattoo on, tattoo off

According to a Pew Research Study on social trends conducted in 2010, 23 percent of all those surveyed had at least one tattoo. They are most popular among those age 18 to 29, with 38 percent saying they had a tattoo. For those aged 30 to 45, 32 percent had a tattoo.

A more r! ecent poll conducted by Harris Interactive found that 21 perce! nt of ad ults surveyed online in January 2012 had a tattoo, up from 14 percent in 2003 and 16 percent in 2008. The polling service surveyed 2,016 adults.

Of those who had tattoos, 14 percent said they've regretted getting one, the survey showed.
As tattooing becomes more popular and mainstream, more and more people are also exploring tattoo removal, said Dr. David Schwartzenfeld, who owns Erase the Ink MD in Rochester Hills with his partner, Dr. Michael Margolis.

The two opened up a tattoo removal business in 2010 because they saw a growing market. They now meet with 70 to 100 patients a week.

"What I've learned it it's almost like therapy for them," said Schwartzenfeld. "There's a story behind every tattoo. It's a part of their past and they are moving on."

The removal process involves high-powered lasers that break up the ink under the skin and trigger the body's immune system to clear away the ink. It can take mulitple lasers to remove different color! inks and multiple treatments to successfully fade a tattoo away.

It also can be expensive. Schwartzenfeld says it typically costs 15 to 20 times more to remove a tattoo that it does than to get one in the first place, depending on a number of factors. On average, it costs about $125 per hour for a tattoo, according to several local parlors.

Pain of body and wallet

As removal technology improves, people get the sense that erasing the ink is easier, but that isn't always the case, says Orringer, whose been removing tattoos for 15 years.
"Even with the most up-to-date modern technology, it's usually a fairly long process that involves discomfort and some cost and the potential for side effects," he said. "... With large tattoos, intricate tattoos, it can be hard to remove them."

One option that many people turn to instead of complete removal is fading the tattoo to the point where it can be covered up by a different design, said tattooist John Mo! tyka, owner and operator of Elite Ink Tattoo Studios, which ha! s tattoo parlors in Warren, Center Line and Dearborn Heights.

"Before getting a tattoo, the person should consult with the tattooist and see if they are capable of taking on the project and if it's what they really want," he said.

In his 22 years in the business, Motyka says he has seen a definite shift in attitudes toward tattooing.

"More than ever, it is a form of self-expression," he said. "When I started in this business in the early '90s, it was considered a form of adult entertainment. Now tattooing is a legitimate industry."

As for undoing the ink, the best thing to do, says Motyka, is go into it accepting that it is forever and plan ahead.

According to a Pew Research Study on social trends conducted in 2010, 23 percent of all those surveyed had at least one tattoo. They are most popular among those age 18 to 29, with 38 percent saying they had a tattoo. For those aged 30 to 45, 32 percent had a tattoo.

Caption:
John Rex, 33, of Ecorse gets some ink off his back. It can take multiple lasers to remove different color inks and multiple treatments to successfully fade a tattoo away.
Clarence Tabb Jr.
The Detroit News