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Published October 14, 2012, 11:40 PM

Regret that tattoo? Laser it off or cover it up

FARGO - Jamie Gall says she’s having her tattoo removed out of respect for others. “I was getting some name-calling, which didn’t bother me that much, but I didn’t want other people to feel uncomfortable around me,” the 24-year-old Fargo woman says.

By: Meredith Holt, INFORUM

FARGO - Jamie Gall says she’s having her tattoo removed out of respect for others.

“I was getting some name-calling, which didn’t bother me that much, but I didn’t want other people to feel uncomfortable around me,” the 24-year-old Fargo woman says.

After three sessions of laser treatment, the black-and-gray Playboy bunny with the words “Playgirl” above it inked onto Gall’s upper back has faded significantly.

Whether impelled by a change of heart or a relationship gone sour, men and women are deciding they can no longer live with their tattoo regret and opting for removal or cover-ups.

“Some people detest them,” says Dr. David Flach, a dermatologist at Sanford Dermatology & Laser Clinic in Fargo.

He tells the story of an 80-year-old Boy Scout leader who wore long sleeves all his life to hide a forearm tattoo he got during his Navy days. “He said, ‘I don’t want to take this to my grave.’ ”

Flach also recalls a long-ago patient who came in to have “Property of” followed by an ex-lover’s name removed from her backside.

“Obviously, she was pretty motivated to get rid of that,” he says with a laugh.

Gall, who got her Playgirl tattoo on a whim when she was 17, says she’s happy with the results of the work she’s had done through Sanford Health.

“It is expensive, but it’s totally worth it,” she says. “If it’s something you really want to do, go for it. We all make silly mistakes at 18.”

Tattooing over tattooing

Though Tad Matcha, 23, of Fargo, was excited to get his first tattoo, he was disappointed with how it turned out.

“It was completely lopsided, and you couldn’t read the writing underneath it. You had to be 2 centimeters from my back to understand it,” he says.

But instead of opting for laser treatment, he asked another tattoo artist to do some cover-up work.

“It turned out a lot better than I thought it would, so I’m extremely happy with it,” he says.

Matcha says he never once considered having it removed.

“If I have it on my body, I have it for a reason. Yeah, it may not have turned out how I planned, but it’s there, and I consider it permanent,” he says.

Fargo tattoo artist Mike Omundson says some laser lightening may be required, but most tattoos are salvageable.

“We try to take clients’ ideas and modify them to create a design that’s going to either cover the tattoo or at least distract the eye from it,” he says.

Omundson, of Fargo’s 46 and 2 Tattoo, says older, faded tattoos are usually easier to cover up, and darker tattoos are obviously harder.

Cliff Gustafson, another artist who works in the shop, says lightening beforehand can make a big difference.

“I have a gentleman I’m tattooing who had a half-sleeve of black tribal, and I told him that if he would’ve done two laser sessions, he would’ve saved a significant amount of money and the tattoo probably would have taken only nine to 12 hours,” he says. “We’re already at 16 to 20, and we still have more to go.”

Gustafson, 33, of Fargo, has had both cover-ups and laser treatments.

Years of “tattooing over tattooing over tattooing” left him with a black mass on his forearm. He decided lasering was his best option.

In the four months since his first session, he’s noticed that the area has continued to lighten up.

“I tell people if you’re going to get lasered, wait at least six months to a year before tattooing over the area, but that’s for extensive lasering projects,” says Gustafson, who recently attended a seminar on cover-ups in Colorado.

After another session or two and enough time for the area to heal, Gustafson plans to return to Minneapolis to finish his new sleeve.

Stubborn colors

Results from laser tattoo removal vary greatly and depend on multiple factors like size, location and color.

“It’s always hard to make promises about how many treatments it’s going to take and how perfectly you can eliminate the pigment,” dermatologist Flach says.

High-energy, low-pulse-duration laser wavelengths penetrate the skin to the dermal layer, where they break up the tattoo pigment’s particles, which are then absorbed by the body’s white blood cells.

“The idea is to have the energy of the laser focused on your target so that it does more damage to what you want to get rid of than it does to the other structures in the skin,” Flach says.

He says the shades located toward the center of the ROYGBIV color spectrum – yellows, greens and blues – are more stubborn.

“Our laser has wavelengths that work pretty well on both ends of the spectrum, but what’s in between is tougher,” he says.

Dr. Ahmed Abdullah, cosmetic surgeon with the Plastic Surgery Institute in Fargo, says the color of the ink is more influential than the age of the tattoo.

“An older, lighter tattoo of India ink will probably be pretty easy to remove versus a mixed-color tattoo, whether it’s old or new,” he says.

Flach says the biggest complaint about the laser is that it hurts.

Abdullah compares it to snapping a rubber band against your skin 60 times a second.

Gall, the Fargo woman who’s having her Playboy bunny tattoo removed, says it’s about as painful as getting a tattoo but the pain doesn’t last as long.

“I didn’t really notice it a couple hours after I had it done,” she says.

Tattoo artist Gustafson, however, says having a tattoo removed is more painful than having it done.

“If they hadn’t used the lidocaine (a local anesthetic), it would’ve been excruciatingly painful,” he says.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Meredith Holt at (701) 241-5590