Tattoos can be tricky. Meet people who went through hell to get theirs erased
There is no quick fix for tattoo removal, doctors warn, and it usually leaves a mark. It can also cost more to erase than you paid to get inked.
Jason George got his first tattoo when he was 17. He is now 25, has about 400 tattoos and holds the Limca Book of Records title for most ‘brand logo tattoos’. He has no regrets, he says.
“All the logos have some connection to my life – my favourite TV channel, my first bicycle, my favourite fast-food chains,” he says.
Unlike him, there are many who change their minds after they’ve got inked — either because they’re bored of the design, for professional reasons, or because the person immortalised in the tattoo is no longer in their lives.
“Tattoo removal is not a quick-fix solution; scars or ink pigments are always left behind,” says Dr Shehla Agarwal, consultant skin specialist and director of Delhi’s Mehak Skin Clinic. “The tattoo rarely disappears completely to leave the skin smooth and unblemished.”
DO YOU REALLY WANT IT?
Too many people get tattoos on an impulse, doctors say. They think it’ll be cute or unique to have a ladybug inked on them, or a butterfly, or a line from a favourite song or poem — only to grow out of it and find that they must spend more money to erase the emblem.
“I also get several people who want to get their tattoos removed because they feel it’s hampering their professional growth,” says Dr Agarwal.
As the number of people getting tattoos rises, so is the number of people wanting them erased. Dr Sama Rais, says consultant cosmetologist at Mumbai’s Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital gets about four cases a week, up from one or two a year ago. Dr Parag Telang, cosmetic plastic and reconstructive surgeon at Fortis SL Raheja Hospital, Mumbai, has seen an increase of 30% over the same period.
“Think carefully before you get a tattoo because exposing your skin to chemicals too frequently is not a great idea,” advises Dr Rais. “And avoid getting a tattoo in the same place where you’ve had one removed.”
This is what Jason tells the people coming to him. He loves tattoes so much that he became a tattoo artist after he graduated, and runs a studio in Vashi, Navi Mumbai.
“Whenever someone comes to me, I ask them to think it through. A tattoo is a very personal thing, but in India it has become a trend – everyone wants generic tattoos like stars on their wrists or angels on their ankles,” he adds.
CAN YOU LIVE WITH IT?
“I thought a butterfly would represent my free-spiritedness, but then I started noticing that every second person had the same design,” says advertising executive Sarika Agarwal, 27.
Last month, less than two years after she got the tattoo, she began the process of having it removed.
She approached Mumbai’s Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital rather than a tattoo studio because she wanted to avoid side-effects such as burn marks and blisters. It took three sessions and wasn’t painful, but it cost Agarwal Rs 20,000. “And I had already spent Rs 13,000 getting inked!” she says, laughing.
Chetna (name changed), 26, is currently admitted at Delhi’s Dr Ram Manohar Lohia hospital for skin grafting. She has five tattoos, all of which she got on an impulse.
“I went to a tattoo studio with my friends and decided to do it because everyone else was. I ended up getting five because of the competition. Initially, I was okay with it. But, after a month or so, when my parents, relatives and friends started commenting on how bad it looked, I became sad and wanted them gone,” she says.
Chetna had an added misadventure when she tried to get rid of the tattoo cheaply.
She went to a neighbourhood quack who gave her an ointment that started burning her skin. “I would cry all night but still kept applying it because I really wanted to be rid of the tattoos,” she says. After the blisters broke, she realised her skin had been burnt.
“Someone had given her an acid that literally burnt away the tattoo, but now we have to do skin grafting to remove the burn marks along with whatever is left of the tattoo. Her skin will never be completely scar-free,” said Dr Samik Bhattacharya, burns and plastic surgeon at RML.
Though he works in a public hospital, Dr Samik Bhattacharya removes three or four tattoos a month. “And we get only the complicated ones that are referred after the skin has been burnt or damaged, so you can imagine the total number of people opting for removal,” he says.
WILL IT AFFECT YOUR CAREER?
If you’re getting a tattoo, ask yourself whether it is likely to interfere with your career. After all, you can’t be a pilot with a spider on your face.
“Most people want a tattoo where they can easily flaunt it. But a chunky tattoo on your neck, for instance, may not be acceptable in many corporate environments. Almost all of my tattoos get covered when I wear a T-shirt and jeans,” says Jason.
Sixty percent of the tattoo removals that Dr Shehla Agarwal does are on women. “There is obviously the marriage pressure. But many women also use tattoos as a form of rebellion. Since parents tell them not to get it done, they get it, and get it when they are emotional. Then they find the tattoos tacky and want them removed,” she says.
“Work and marriage are the most common reasons why people want tattoos removed. People who have tattoos are considered medically unfit for defence, but nowadays, even multi-national companies tend to reject candidates with visible tattoos,” says Dr Bhattacharya.
People who want careers in aviation, hospitality or the merchant navy comes to us to erase their tattoos, so do people with names of their exes on them, says Dr Telang.
If you are sure you want a tattoo, it is safest to choose a simple line drawing of a single colour.
“Line-drawings are easy to remove because there is less ink involved. Green and red are the worst colours to get off the skin. And fluorescent colours tend to cause severe reactions when touched by a laser,” says Dr Agarwal.
HOW A LASER GETS RID OF YOUR INK
During laser treatment, the intense light is absorbed by the dye in the tattoos, which causes a reaction, leading to the body’s immune system removing the pigments over time.
Numbing creams and advanced technology have made tattoo removal easier. “The number of sessions needed depends on the tattoo’s size, age and the colours used,” Dr Rais adds. “All-black tattoos are the easiest to remove; multi-coloured ones are the most resistant. Keeping the tattooed area covered and cool is very important to avoid a permanent burn mark.”