Not Worth The Ink It's Written With

Tattooing hurts; removing it is worse

Posted: January 02, 2008

GOODBYE, 2007. Hello, 2008.

Now is the time to wipe the slate clean and start anew.

But what if that slate is your skin and the thing you want wiped clean is injected into your flesh with indelible ink?

The tattoo boom of the early 1990s has given rise to tattoo regret, and an increasing number of hipsters want to get rid of ink that was soooooo last year, studies show.

"It's all about growing up and time passing and your life changing," said Dr. Andrew Pollack, director of the Philadelphia Institute of Dermatology.

"Who hasn't opened their mouth and then said, 'Oh, man, I wish I could take it back.' I'm the guy who helps people take it back," said Eric Bernstein, a Bryn Mawr dermatologist who specializes in tattoo removal.

Pollack and Bernstein are in the burgeoning business of using lasers to erase people's colorful pasts. Among their patients:

_ The once rebellious teen who got a butterfly tattooed on her shoulder is now a 20-something woman who wants to wear a strapless dress at her country-club wedding.

_ The former frat boy who got Greek letters inked on his leg and is now a young lawyer who's embarrassed to wear shorts at the annual company picnic.

_ The ex-con who wants to shed the gang emblem and go straight.

_ And the reformed neo-Nazi with the swastika tattoo who just met a nice Jewish girl and is joining her folks for Passover dinner.

OK, that last example was a bit of a stretch. Actually, the guy who had a swastika tattooed on his forehead never said why he wanted it removed.

"I think the decision spoke for itself," said Pollack, who has also removed numbers from Holocaust survivors.

Bernstein said he recently removed the word "bitch," etched in black ink, from a woman's lower lip.

"She told me she thought they were writing something else on there," Bernstein said.

Like what?

"I don't know," Bernstein said. " 'I love my dentist?' I couldn't tell ya."

A 2006 study by the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that 24 percent of Americans ages 18 to 50 are tattooed. Of those, 17 percent had considered removal.

The top reason for tattoo regret is a faded romance, according to dermatologists.

Donna Maleczkowicz's boyfriend convinced her to get his initials - "CS" - inked on her bikini line during a drunken escapade. At the time, she had been dating him for just a month. They met at Delilah's, the Center City gentlemen's club, where she still works as a hostess.

"I really, really thought that he was the one," she said last week.

They were talking marriage when he broke it off after more than three years of dating.

"I actually went to see Dr. Bernstein and I said, 'Listen, I want you to get this thing off right now. I don't care if you have to burn it off,' " said Maleczkowicz, 27, of Holland, Bucks County.

By the end of 2008, CS presumably will be history and so will another unwanted tattoo she got on a whim: A pair of flowers with vines that wrap around her navel. She's worried that if she decides to have a baby someday, the tattoo will stretch across her bulging, third-trimester stomach like a scraggly weed.

Tattoo removal is not quick, cheap, or painless.

"When I say painful, you can't believe it," Bernstein said. "I've had Marines pass out unconscious. It's a killer."

Bernstein numbs the skin and then uses special lasers that fracture tattoo pigments into tiny particles, which then get absorbed by the body.

Professional tattoos require six to 10 - sometimes more - laser treatments to remove. Each session can cost between $250 and $500. Bernstein said he performs roughly a thousand laser treatments each year, and that number is growing.

Tattoo regret was highest among inked Republicans, according to a 2003 poll by Harris Interactive, a New York-based research firm.

Kerri Valentine is a Republican.

At 18, the college freshman got a blue and purple mushroom tattooed on her lower back, just above her butt - a common tattoo location that Philly cops jokingly refer to as a "tramp stamp."

Yes, a mushroom, as in fungus. Valentine said the choice had nothing to do with so-called "Magic Mushrooms," the psychedelic drug popular on college campuses in the 1990s.

"Mushrooms are my favorite pizza topping," she said.

Valentine, now 30, of Lafayette Hill, Montgomery County, said she had four laser treatments in 2007 and will undergo another six this year before the mushroom is gone.

Kristin Sunderman, a 32-year-old paralegal from Lansdale, is in the process of zapping three tattoos she got as a teen. She's perhaps most embarrassed by the tattoo of drama masks - one smiling, one crying - on her ankle.

The tattoo has nothing to do with theater. It's supposed to be an expression of teenage angst. The whole hiding-your-pain thing.

"I was a very depressed youth," Sunderman laughed in a New Year's eve interview. "It's a whole dark pain kind of thing. At that age, you don't really know much about anything and your hormones are out of control. When I look at it now, I think, 'My goodness, what was wrong with me?' "

Of course, all tattoos seem like a good idea at the time.

A decade ago, Dave Donch got a cover album of his favorite band, "Sublime," tattooed on his leg from knee to ankle. The 1992 album included song titles like "Date Rape" and "We're Only Gonna Die for Our Own Arrogance."

Then a few years later, when he no longer liked the band enough to be a walking billboard for its music, he got a "cover-up" tattoo that he liked even less. He had a tattoo artist draw over the album cover, turning the image into an angel with a sword with a stained-glass-window-like background. The artist threw in some "tormented souls" with one soul rising above the rest.

"I was doing like a good-over-evil thing," Donch said. "At first, I kind of liked it. Then I was like, 'No, this wasn't what I was going for.' As I got older and matured, I grew out of the artwork."

Donch, 33, who lives in Collingswood, N.J., said he's been to Bernstein's office about eight times and the tattoo is significantly faded.

"I'm going through a lot to get it off," Donch said. "But, hey, if that's the biggest mistake I've made in my whole life, I'm doing good."

Some people decide to live with their mistakes.

Sean Dubowik, a 37-year-old manager at a topless bar in Phoenix, Ariz., made national headlines in late December after a surgeon got fired for snapping a photo of Dubowik's tattooed penis with his cell phone camera. The doctor admitted taking the photo while inserting a catheter into Dubowik's penis during a gallbladder operation. The tattoo on Dubowik's private part reads, "Hot Rod." In an interview with the Daily News last week, Dubowik said he got the tattoo on a dare from friends who offered to pay him $1,000 if he went through with it.

"They never paid up," Dubowik said. "It was horrible. The pain was horrible. I can't even explain it.

"That's the only reason why I couldn't have it removed. I couldn't go through the pain again." *

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