Tattoos have long been crucial to human beautification. They adorn the back, right knee and ankles of Ötzi, a German-Italian better known as the “Iceman,” whose mummified corpse is 5,200 years old. After England's defeat at the Battle of Hastings, King Harold's body was identified by his tattoos.
According to a recent Harris Poll, tattoos have become only more popular since then. Whereas 14 percent of U.S. adults reported having a tattoo in 2008, the number jumped to 21 percent this year.
Tattoos appear particularly prized in the West, where 26 percent of adults reported having at least one tattoo in 2012 – compared with 21 percent in the East and Midwest, and 18 percent in the South.
But local tattoo artists say the real boom is not in tattooing, but in tattoo removal.
“I get calls all the time – do you remove tattoos?” said James Wharton of Blue Tiger Tattoo. “I tell them no, sometimes we can cover them. I've had a lot of success doing that. But there's been a demand for quite awhile – and few people in town do it.”
Johnny Bell, who has worked at YourFleshTattoo for six years, also receives weekly inquiries about removal.
“You can cover anything, but the main idea is to take the eye away from whatever's going on,” Bell said, “so you usually end up with something bigger, more involved, that has a lot more line work.”
Last week, on Wharton's and Bell's advice, Patty Purcell of Four Corners Laser & Aesthetics acquired a 290-pound laser that cost nearly $80,000 – the AlexTrivanta, by Candela Laser, which she expects to transform her business.
“Durango is pretty tattoo-friendly, but 60 percent of people with tattoos have regrets. I haven't even started really marketing yet, but I already have a waiting list,” said Purcell.
Bring in the laser
Dr. Mark Gaughan of Durango Dermatology injected a local anesthetic into Clyde Price's right and left biceps on which “Nancy” and “Francis” – the names of two former paramours – had been inscribed for almost 60 years.
“When I got the tattoos, the only anesthetic was tequila,” said Price amiably.
He recalled that he had paid $5 for the pair when he was 15 – a bargain compared with today's going rate of $150 per hour, though less so considering he likely will pay between $300 to $500 to get them removed over the course of six half-hour sessions.
As Gaughan moved the laser over the faded ink names, Price, 73, explained that he had finally opted to remove them because “I've got nothing but terrible memories of those women. They led me down the wrong road. Plus my wife don't particularly like them, either.”
The laser made a crackling noise. Gaughan, who has been laser-removing tattoos for 12 years, said laser removal is “often referred to as a ‘photo acoustic reaction' because you can actually hear it as the laser breaks up the ink into micro droplets that can be absorbed by the body.”
Gaughan said lasers were most effective at removing “the classic black ink. They do fine with red ink, too, but when you start getting into yellow, green, purple and sky blue, it doesn't work as well.”
Going under the knife
Dr. Ronald Ritz said surgical excision could succeed where laser removal fails, “but that's not always possible. It depends on the dimensions of the tattoo and where it's located, a person's age, and if there's enough loose skin to sew it up.”
Ritz said larger tattoos could require serial excisions, and possibly tissue expansion, “which is putting balloons under the skin, so that it stretches. But both laser removal and surgical excision will leave scarring. It's a lot easier to put them on than to take them off,” he said.
Dr. Denis Winder, who has surgically removed “maybe a thousand tattoos,” agreed that “many of the tattoos being done today are really works of art. But the difficulty with tattoos is that they have to be considered permanent. What might look good on a person in their 20s might not look so good on a person in their 80s.”
Stay body smart
Doctors and tattoo artists alike urged Durangoans to exercise sober judgment before getting a tattoo, citing tattoos that relate to gangs, significant others and stints in prison as instances of bodily self-expression that their bearers frequently come to lament.
Tattoo artists' anecdotes were more dissuasive.
Wharton said a young man had come into Blue Tiger Tattoo requesting his neck be tattooed with Chinese characters – of which the English translation would be a four-letter word followed by “you.”
“I said, ‘What happens when you're before an Asian judge and you've got (an expletive) on your neck written in his language?' He changed his mind, and got it on his arm,” Wharton said.
Bell, of YourFleshTattoo, recalled a woman coming into the shop in March with her boyfriend's name already tattooed to her back “in big, 5-inch letters. She wanted me to add an apostrophe ‘s,'” – and a word meaning female canine, “beneath that – basically declaring herself his property. We definitely turned her down – we won't do anything that degrades the body.”
Bell also said misspellings were “absolutely” an issue.
“We try to spell-check everything, but it's on the client to make sure that what they bring us is spelled correctly,” he said. “A woman came in last month – she really liked the tattoo, but it was supposed to be the name of a Bible book, and they left out a letter.”
Both Bell and Wharton aimed to attend the laser-removing training sessions at Purcell's Four Corners Laser & Aesthetics.
“I've got a 26-year-old tattoo on me – it's too small, and between the lettering, age, exposure to the sun – I'm going to ask Patty to laser it off,” Wharton said. “Hopefully, she'll give me a break on the price. I'll refer her a lot of business.”