Fifteen percent of the tattooed population regrets their ink, according to a 2012 Harris Interactive survey, and for the first time in the nine years since the market research firm has conducted the survey, women are the more inked sex. Perhaps it's time to look at our options. You know, aside from never wearing a sleeveless shirt again. Read on and learn how to take control of tired ink without pulling a Johnny Depp and wino-ing it forever.
Chances are, if you were attracted to the inked look in the first place, you still like it. Your instinct to rock a little ink hasn’t totally evaporated, but the way you want to express that desire has. So why not upgrade that single-color scrawl to something a little more you?
Haley Adams, a tattoo artist of eight years who works at Black and Blue Tattoo in San Francisco, says that whole new looks can replace older work. She adds that the technique works well on any skin tone, skin age, and on nearly any location — with one possible exception.
“Tattoos on the breast are the hardest to cover," Adams says. "It’s a different kind of skin and the coverup has to be slightly bigger than the original image." She notes that because of areola and nipple placement, limited real estate on the breast can prove problematic — since coverups generally need to be at least an inch bigger than the original in diameter.
And, while blacking out an old design with midnight ink might seem like the best way to make an old image disappear, Adams notes that color and linework are the best tools for replacing an old design. Simply adding a big, black coverup isn't going to work, she says: "You’re going to end up with something worse than you already had. I’ve had to do coverups of coverups because artists make those bad decisions.”
To avoid the do-over of the do-over, be picky about which tattoo artist you select to create the coverup. Adams suggests finding a shop that does work that you like. Look through artist portfolios and pay special attention to the coverups and before-and-after images. Finally, make sure the artist you select actually likes doing coverup work.
“Not everyone can do them,” Adams says of coverups. “Some artists won’t do them, and a lot of artists don’t even like doing them. So, do your research and work with an artist who is excited about the work.”
“A lot of people think their bad tattoo is hopeless,” she continues. “But, you can cover anything as long as you have the right person doing it. It can be very beautiful.”
Lasers may be the best way to go. While other methods are available — like salabrasion, in which the tattoo is scraped away with an abrasive tool after a salt solution is applied to the skin, and dermabrasion, which can remove tattoos by sanding down the skin with a rotary device — they tend to scar.
“Salabrasion and dermabrasion destroy skin to get rid of a tattoo. By doing that, you create a wound, and once that heals, you’re left with a bad scar. The destruction of the skin will also destroy the tattoo,” says Dermatologist Amy Derick, Instructor of Clinical Dermatology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “The goal of laser tattoo removal is to leave most of the skin intact and tease the tattoo out.”
Lasers remove tattoos by delivering ultra-short pulses of energy that crystallize and break up the ink. Removal generally requires multiple treatments that span several visits (depending on the size and how how much ink was used in the design, the laser type, skin type, and surprisingly, whether the patient is a smoker.) Since treatments are spaced out at about six to eight weeks, full removal could take a year or more to achieve. But, the effect is worth the wait, as lasers are much less likely to scar the skin.
“A quality laser has a one to five percent chance of causing any kind of scarring if the technician is following protocol and the laser is properly maintained,” says certified laser specialist Lorenzo Kunze II, who teaches tattoo removal at the International Laser Academy in Rochester, New York. “Most scarring comes from people buying cheap and poorly-made lasers that cannot completely remove a tattoo." When technicians turn up the energy to get results, that often causes scars. ("If we could eliminate these types of lasers, we could eliminate the worst stigma associated with tattoo removal,” Kunze adds.)
This year, a big advance in lasers hit the market — PicoSure, a picosecond aesthetic laser that delivers ultra-short bursts of energy to the skin in trillionths of a second, as compared to other lasers on the market that fire at nanoseconds. This technology, used by both Kunze and Derick, can remove some tattoos entirely, in a fewer number of treatments. While this new laser can be about twice as fast as others, it’s not for everyone. For example, a longer-wavelength laser is needed to effectively break up the ink in darker skin tones.
As with the coverup game, the best chance at getting a tattoo removed flawlessly is to do your research. See a laser removal specialist who knows her stuff, like which laser to use on which skin tones and on which colors of ink.
Dermatology is a good place to start. “Using a board-certified dermatologist is good because lasers and wound care are right in our wheelhouse,” Derick says. “The American Society for Dermatologic Surgery is a good resource in the sense that they have their members listed by specialty [so you can look for tattoo removal specialists].”
When looking for a dermatologist to remove a tattoo, Derick also suggests finding someone who is well-versed in the practice of removing tattoos with lasers. “There are tricky nuances with certain colors and different things,” she says. "You want to make sure you have someone with lots of experience."
Kunze agrees. “Anyone can take a two- or three-day course and become certified to remove tattoos. Not every laser specialist or training program is created equal. My students take at least six months to a year to become true professionals. These students complete personalized hands-on mentorship, enroll in continued education courses, and gain experience by performing many free treatments for clients that are willing to be models,” he says.
Finally, be sure to ask about the recovery and aftercare regimen — and follow it with the precision of the tattoo gun that got you to laserland in the first place.
“In a good clinic with proper equipment and training, you may come across two or three clients a year that have any form of scarring, hyperpigmentation, hypopigmentation, and/or infection. And, those are usually attributed to not following the aftercare instructions, like staying out of the sun, keeping it out of hot water, and keeping it clean,” Kunze says.
Now, the part you've been waiting for: How much is this gonna cost? Most clinics charge by the square inch, so a simple black tattoo around the size of a business card would be between $100-$300, depending on the amount of ink in the tattoo. More colors? Plan to pay more. But, really, when it comes to removing that "Made In Detriot" scrawl, it's a small price to pay.
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