- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 22, 2000

For some, getting a tattoo is easy. Parting with it is often much harder.

Dr. Tina Alster, founding director of the Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery, caters to people who no longer want the distinctive marks on their bodies.

"I think the main reason that people get their tattoo taken off is because they have outgrown that stage of their life," said Dr. Alster, who has a private practice in Georgetown. "Either that tattoo no longer represents who they are as a person or they are no longer in that relationship."

This is especially true for people who have been in prison, involved with gangs or in abusive relationships, she said.

"I feel it is important to treat these tattoos for people for their rehabilitation back into society," Dr. Alster said. "I end up seeing everyone who really needs treatment."

For people who "really need treatment," tattoo removal has given them a new lease on life.

Marilyn Perez, 38, of Buckeye, Ariz., was 15 when she got her first tattoo. "Some of my friends had one, so I got one, too," she said.

"They would say, 'You hang out with us, so why don't you get a tattoo?' " she said. "Back then, we didn't call it a gang. We called it friends."

Mrs. Perez has tattoos on her hand, shoulder and back.

"When I was 29, I wanted to work in an office," she said. "I found that the tattoo on my hand was giving me a hard time, so I tried to burn it off myself."

"For 20 years, I've covered them up because they weren't something to be proud of, but when they're gone, I'm going to start buying short-sleeved shirts," she said.

It normally would have cost Mrs. Perez $3,000 to get the tattoo on her arm removed, but because of doctors and outreach facilities like Ex Tattoo in Phoenix, she is able to have all three of her tattoos treated for $65.

Dr. Govind Acharya, a plastic surgeon in Phoenix, has been involved with Ex Tattoo since its conception five years ago.

"I have been involved in missions overseas, so it was just up my alley to start this program," he said.

Dr. Acharya comes to the center every six to eight weeks to administer laser tattoo-removal procedures. "This is something that is part of my schedule," he said.

"When we first started, it was just two of us," he said. "It is giving back to the community through service."

Now, the center has 10 physicians who volunteer.

Liz Baker, recreation programmer for Ex Tattoo, said the organization is not concerned only with removing tattoos, but also with helping patients finish their education and find a job.

"Most of the people who come in just want to get back to living a normal life," she said. "They don't want people to look at them strangely anymore."

Participants typically receive one treatment every six to eight weeks for up to a year. For each treatment, the participant is required to pay from $10 to $250, participate in 8 to 16 hours of community service and attend schooling.

"Our whole philosophy is geared to give them a new lease on life and make them active and productive," Mrs. Baker said.

Lorenzo Garcia, 17, from Portland, Ore., was 16 when he had the words "Smile now, cry later" tattooed on both arms. He also had three dots on his hands that stood for "mi vida loca," or "my crazy life." Then he had a gang-related five-point crown with three letters tattooed on his back.

"They say you've got to represent where you're from, and I was just having a crazy lifetime," he said.

Mr. Garcia was in a 300-member gang.

"We all had the same or similar tattoos," he said. "Basically, it set us apart. That, and our colors."

One time, when he was cruising with some friends, another gang started shooting at them and one of his friends took a bullet in the shoulder.

"I've left the gang and stopped using drugs," he said. "I got a clear head and I knew what I was doing was wrong. I didn't want people getting into fights with me because of my tattoos and colors."

Enid Schildkrout, chairman of the anthropology department at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, said the history of tattoos dates back to 5000 B.C., and can be traced to Asia, Europe and South America.

"I think body art goes back as far as human beings," she said.

"It was usually done as a symbol of accomplishment, a coming of age or sign of belonging to a particular group," Miss Schildkrout said. "I think the reasons individuals did it in the past and today are similar."

"Tattoos can either become a way of ostracizing people or admiring them," she said.

Alice Hendrickson, 29, of Phoenix found that her tattoos hindered her ability to get a good job.

"When I went for an interview, the manager was the first to give me a tour," she said. "She told me she didn't think it was going to work out because I had visible tattoos."

"I've been in the Ex Tattoo program almost two years and I have had 10 treatments," Mrs. Hendrickson said. "Mine were mostly done by apprentices, so there was a lot more ink."

A spokesman for Grafixx Tattoo in the District, who asked not to be identified, agrees that stricter regulations need to be applied to both tattoo artists and parlors.

He says a lot of youths involved in gangs are not having their tattoos done professionally.

"Most professionals will not tattoo gang emblems, and to even get a tattoo here, a person has to be 18, regardless of who they bring with them," he said.

Mrs. Alster emphasizes that tattooing is unregulated in many states, but that there is a definite need for regulation.

"From a health standpoint, I believe it is pertinent that tattooing is regulated in all states," she said.

New York City has had regulations in place since 1997. The Department of Health there cautions people about the effects of getting tattoos.

"Tattooing is an invasive procedure that can result in serious skin and blood infections. Where procedures involving penetration of the skin are not performed correctly, they can be means of transmitting organisms that cause diseases," the department said in a statement. The statement further listed health risks, such as AIDS and hepatitis.

Erich Giebelhaus, spokesman for the New York City Health Department, said tattooists are licensed by the state.

"Our goal is to regulate the tattoo artists, rather than the parlors," he said. "Our aim is to control the spread of infectious disease."

"We have a course for individuals wanting to obtain a license," Mr. Giebelhaus said. "The license lasts for two years. Then the person must reapply."

Despite the continued popularity of tattoos, some people have simple reasons for wanting them removed.

Michelle Weisman, 29, works in a law firm and said she no longer wants a Japanese symbol of spiritual harmony on her neck or the Grateful Dead bear on her ankle because they were youthful impulses and do not apply to her life anymore.

"I guess I thought if I had it on my neck, I would get [spiritual harmony] by osmosis," she says. "It didn't work."

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