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Impermanent Ink

Published: Sunday, June 25, 2006

Updated: Saturday, December 13, 2008 23:12

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MONTAGE PHOTO/JOSH CORBAN

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Michael Shackelford, a tattoo artist at Atomic Tattoos on Fowler Avenue, gathers his gear for a tattoo convention in Atlanta. He feels that the new forms of ink detract from the "permanent" meaning that tattoos are supposed to hold. MONTAGE PHOTO/JOSH CORBAN

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Special to the Oracle

The above photo shows the effects of laser tattoo removal. Results like these can require as many as 15 visits to obtain. Special to the Oracle

Art has always had a role in society, and the human body has always been a favorite canvas. Approximately one in four Americans has at least one tattoo, according to the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. Getting a tattoo has always been a big decision because of its permanence, but two new types of ink may make that choice easier.

The American Society of Dermatological Surgery states about 50 percent of tattooed Americans want their permanent body art removed.

"My friend decided to tattoo her first love's initial on her upper arm," said senior Sandra Fairman. "Later on, she broke up with him. She has it tattooed on her, and she can't get it off."

The higher the amount of tattoo remorse, the greater the need for advancements in tattoo removal technology. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lists laser treatment as the most common method. In laser treatment, light from the laser breaks up the tattoo ink and the body absorbs the ink. However, most people need more than one treatment to remove a tattoo, and some tattoos can never be completely removed.

Alternate tattoo removal methods include dermabrasion, in which the skin is numbed and sanded to its lower layers; salabrasion, in which a salt solution is used to remove the pigment; and scarification, in which the tattoo is removed with acid, leaving a scar in its place. Other options are to have the tattoos surgically removed, or simply get a different tattoo over the old one.

But according to the Associated Press, two new forms of tattoo ink are set to launch in the next two years that could make tattoo removal much easier.

A company called Freedom-2 is developing ink - expected to be available next year - that can be removed with a single laser treatment. R. Rox Anderson, a Harvard Medical School graduate, developed this easy-to-remove tattoo by putting protective polymer beads around the dyes. The dyes aren't permanent, and they are absorbed by the skin once a laser splits the beads.

The FDA has no regulations for materials used in tattoo ink, which often includes carbon black - a soot-like carcinogenic material most commonly found in car tires - and metal salts. Freedom-2 advertises that the new ink's ingredients have been approved by the FDA for other bodily applications, such as makeup and medical equipment.

Michael Guminfki, a freelance tattoo artist, said this kind of tattoo ink is useful for those who get tattoos and change their minds later.

"I think it's actually a good idea in this current state of short-attention-span people who get tattoos," Guminfki said. "They get tattoos because it's a fad or a trendy thing to do. These kinds of people get tattoos, and five or ten years from now will regret it. Then, they will be able to go in and get it easily removed."

Others expressed disdain for this new form of tattoo.

"In my opinion, the very essence of a tattoo is that it's permanent, and it's supposed to be," Fairman said. "There are a lot of people getting tattoos removed, but at the same time tattoos are becoming more mainstream. I think that if you are going to get one, you might as well live with the fact that it's permanent and not get ink that is removable. I don't think that's the purpose."

Michael Shackelford of Atomic Tattoos, a Tampa Bay area tattoo and piercing shop, said he doubts the new form of tattoo ink will be as high quality as the inks already in use.

"Even if it's easy to get out, it just seems to me that it would fade that way," Shackelford said. "There's no guarantee that things are going to fade evenly. Parts could get lighter. The consistency of the pigment might be slightly different, too. Every artist uses the pigment that they are comfortable with, so they would have to have different brands of that. I just think that it's questionable."

Shackelford said that no serious tattoo artist would want to use the new ink technology. As for tattoo remorse, Shackelford believes regret is part of life and has its place in the tattoo world.

"I believe that a certain amount of regret is healthy," he said. "I have tattoos that I'm not so happy with. It's good for people to make educated decisions, but you learn from bad things in your life, so you don't make the similar mistakes again."

In addition to Freedom-2's upcoming product, the Associated Press reported that another kind of ink technology will be available in 2008 that gives new meaning to the term "temporary tattoo." The pigment is applied to the skin as with traditional tattoos, but begins to dissolve into the skin without the help of lasers. Within six months to 24 months, the tattoo fades entirely. Although the ink may be perfect for those with fickle tastes in body art, it has its detractors.

"No one should go through the pain of getting a tattoo to have it fade out in a few months," Fairman said. "The only circumstance where I could see it being any good is if someone wasn't sure that they could live with a tattoo forever and later got it permanently. Even then, I think that when you get a tattoo, it's symbolic. It's an original piece of art. You'll never be able to recreate it again. So when it fades, you could get it redone, but it would never be the same."

Guminfki said that this form of tattoo is good for testing out a tattoo design.

"I think that's a really good idea for people who are not sure if they want a permanent tattoo," he said. "It gives them the experience of getting it, so they know what it feels like. They can actually wear it for an extended period of time without having to worry about it washing off, like henna or a temporary tattoo. It gives them the ability to see if it's something they permanently want on them. I'm all for it."

No matter what new technology is used in creating them, tattoos will always have a place in art and self-expression.

"There are lots of people who get tattoos for reasons like life experiences," Shackelford said. "There are just as many people who get tattoos because they like the way that they look. It's like getting a haircut for some people. Our culture is too disposable. Tattoos are one of the last things that are actually permanent. Most tattooists strive to create tattoos that will hold the rest of your life."

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