When revelry turns to regret
As the laser moves over his arm with a quick snapping noise, Sam Hall winces and clenches one fist. The smell of burning hair rises up as the laser works to explode the pigment buried in his skin.
This is his fourth treatment to remove tattoos, and this time he’s gotten a shot of local anesthetic. Otherwise, he said, “it hurts about eight times more to have it removed than going on.”
Hall, of Paradise, would be paying $3,000 to $3,500 to get the two tattoos—one of a dragon and the other of a skull wearing a Confederate flag bandana—removed from his forearms if Dr. Donald Richey of Chico weren’t cutting him a break.
“About three years ago, I gave my life back to God,” said the 30-year-old carpenter, and the tattoos just didn’t fit. “It doesn’t present the proper appearance, even though God knows my heart. It’s hard for me to be a proper witness to him [with these tattoos].”
Richey is the only dermatologist in the Chico area doing laser tattoo removal. Until six months ago, he had to refer the regretfully decorated to specialists in Sacramento.
The doctor became interested in tattoo removal 20 years ago, empathizing with a woman who wanted to wear a sleeveless dress to her son’s wedding but couldn’t because she had a tattoo of a paratrooper with an old boyfriend’s name on it. “She had never worn a dress above her elbow in front of her kids,” Richey said. The woman had to have the tattoo surgically excised, and it left a scar.
“A tattoo is a statement,” he said, but, as the Angelina Jolie–Billy Bob Thornton breakup proved, “that statement of love [can end up] not too practical.”
“Many tattoos say you’re rebellious, you’re off the edge,” Richey said, adding that he has nothing against body art in a philosophical sense. “I’m not making a judgment, but I’m here if you feel you’ve made an inappropriate decision.”
It wasn’t until laser removal technology became available in a single machine, rather than one for each color, that Richey decided to make the investment. “Until I could get one that did everything, I wasn’t able to get into it,” he said. When the $100,000 Medlite Laser System, which leaves no scars and removes 95 percent of the tattoo ink, became available, “I said, ‘OK, I’m in.'”
Gaylene Shaulis of Oroville is another of Richey’s clients. She’s having two colorful tattoos removed—a cluster of balloons on her back shoulder and a bow and arrow surrounded by roses on her hip. The former included a reference to a prior relationship, and the latter, she said, “I’m just not into anymore.”
Shaulis’ tattoos are proving challenging. “When you’re dealing with multiple colors, we go after the black first and then go after the colors,” said nurse Kelly Newton-Ryan. The patient must wait six weeks between treatments for the skin to heal and the ink to clear. It can take up to six treatments, at $150 to $850 apiece, to remove each tattoo. Since it’s cosmetic, insurance coverage is out of the question.
Even the best laser work might not remove all remnants of a tattoo. Green, with its chromium dioxide, is the hardest color to take out, because it deflects too much of the laser, and it may require a referral to a dermatologist with a carbon dioxide laser, which does scar.
Homemade tattoos are relatively easy to remove, because they’re usually shallow and done with India ink that disperses easily.
“Some of the prison tattoos are just awful,” Richey said. One of his nurses, Mary Olsen, has heard of tattoos done in prison using Styrofoam, ink pen cartridges and even cigarette ashes. Hepatitis C is always a risk with nonprofessional tattoos. Richey stressed that he thinks highly of the local studios. “I think they are very ethical,” he said.
Ronita Yvarra, of New Creation Tattoo, said, “All the time I counsel people out of tattoos.
“I do a lot of coverup,” she said. “It’s a fun challenge. I love having the coverup turn out so you can’t tell it’s a coverup.”
Even tattoo artists have made their share of mistakes.
“I’ve gotten some bad tattoos,” admitted Kip Delaney of Victory Tattoo, who opted to have his regrets artfully disguised rather than professionally erased.
Both studio owners refer people looking to have tattoos removed to Richey.
Richey offers a discount to those who’ve been refused a job because of a tattoo or have been barred from military service because of multiple or offensive tattoos.
He said the only removals he’ll do for free are those of people who’ve graduated from drug court. He’s disappointed that no social-service programs provide funds for tattoo removal and hopes a benefactor will step forward to underwrite procedures for those who can’t afford them.
“It’s not a real profit center for us,” he said.—D.A.