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Here’s a quick way to lose a new friend: Ask him or her if that tattoo that seemed like such a good idea at age 22 will appeal at age 45 or 60. Blows their minds and gets their backs up in one fell swoop. I poked around the ’Net, but couldn’t find stats about the numerous 50-somethings who no doubt seek removal of tattoos or express regret. Find anything on the subject?
—Kevin, San Francisco
Listen, with enough brass, a kid grown old can get away with anything nowadays. Mick Jagger strutting on stage at 63—from personal observation I can tell you it works. White-haired, potbellied Harley riders—let’s just say I’ve gotten used to them. Balding smart-aleck columnists—they’ve still got it, absolutely. Admittedly at the moment the thought of an 80-year-old with full sleeve tattoos makes me cringe, but who’s to say? Maybe someday I’ll look at a choice example of wrinkled body art at the bingo game and think: Whoa, dearie. You rock.
And that day is coming—a 2004 study estimated about a quarter of Americans had at least one tattoo, and among folks born between 1975 and 1986 the figure was 36 percent. One expert projects that eventually 40 percent of U.S. human bodies will sport at least one instance of epidermal art. Some of those bodies’ owners will have second thoughts, but perhaps fewer than you might think. Research suggests only 20 percent of tattooees are dissatisfied with their markings, and just 6 percent actually seek to get them removed.
The thing to remember is, tattoos are hardly new, and neither is tattoo remorse. The first known tattoo decorated the famous Otzi, a 5,300-year-old Neolithic hunter/warrior whose preserved remains were discovered in the Alps, and some Egyptian mummies bear evidence of attempted tattoo removal. The earliest description of getting rid of tattoos is from Greece—an inscription at the sanctuary of Asclepius of Epidaurus (circa 400 B.C.) tells of one Pandarus, who had some tattoos removed from his forehead with the help of the gods.
The first earthly prescription for tattoo removal is from the Byzantine physician Aetius: “First clean the stigmata with niter, smear them with resin of terebing, and bandage for five days.” Ship’s surgeon Lionel Wafer describes an attempt to remove a tattoo from the face of one of his companions during his travels in the mid-1600s. In 1879, the Daily Democrat of Sedalia, Mo., ran a story titled “In a Bad Fix,” which describes the plight of a jilted society woman who’d had her former lover’s name tattooed on her leg—not a good idea then, not a good idea now.
Miss Sedalia apparently wasn’t alone in her regrets. Initially the province of sailors and later circus performers (mostly female), tattoos became a status symbol among women of the upper crust in the late 19th century. The New York Times reported in 1880 that “at least seven and a half per cent. of fashionable London ladies were tattooed in inaccessible localities.” Predictably, by 1891 Scientific American was publishing articles about tattoo removal techniques, including one involving nitric acid. In 1936, Life claimed one in 10 Americans was tattooed but said tattoo artists erased two tattoos for every three they created—or at least tried to.
Tattoo removal is still an imperfect science. While modern pulsed-laser technology beats the old methods of salabrasion (rubbing the tattoo off with salt), dermabrasion (freezing the skin and sanding the tattoo off), surgical excision, and application of caustic chemicals, it’s still not guaranteed. It requires multiple treatments, and it works better on some body parts and colors than others (ankle tattoos and yellow ink are especially tough).
Some new developments may help future tattoo recipients. One is tattoo ink visible only under black light—by day you look like a Republican delegate, by night at the clubs you’re flashing that tramp stamp. Another ink marketed under the name Infinitink uses microencapsulation technology to simplify laser removal; supposedly one good zap will destroy the microcapsules so the body can absorb the pigment.
There are lots of reasons to regret a tattoo, some more urgent than others. Plenty of folks have gotten misspelled tattoos—some of which have led to lawsuits. Others have obtained tattoos in languages that they didn’t speak, only to learn the tattoos didn’t mean what they thought. Still others have allergic reactions to tattoo pigments (red is the worst). The pigments haven’t been carefully studied and aren’t regulated; in 2005, a Texas manufacturer recalled 52,000 containers of tattoo ink after more than 150 reactions were reported. And some tattoo owners have experienced burning and swelling when undergoing MRIs.
But mostly the reasons for removing a tattoo are what you’d expect. Looking through a 2006 survey of tattoo removal patients (women outnumber men), I find things like “got tired of it” or “suffered embarrassment.” My favorite, though, is “just grew up.”
Is there something you need to get straight? Take it up with Cecil on the Straight Dope message board, straightdope.com.