Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=222766
Story Retrieval Date: 11/22/2014 9:28:49 PM CST

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Sepideh Nia and Andrea Towers/ MEDILL

Patty, a.k.a. Taly, Morales talks tats.


Getting inked: The skinny behind tattoos

by Sepideh Nia and Andrea Towers
June 06, 2013


Tattoo Pain Graph

Sepideh Nia and Andrea Towers/MEDILL

Tattoo Pain Scale, data acquired from http://www.tattoospace.org/topic/3201.html

Lindsey Tattoo 2

Sepideh Nia/MEDILL

Lindsey Peterson got the birthday candle tattoo two years ago to symbolize the first night she bonded with her husband, Zack.  She now wants to get this tattoo as well as her two other tattoos removed.

At age 17, Lindsey Peterson got her first tattoo - a phoenix on her back. Two more followed. Now, the 27-year-old Omaha native wants to remove all three, including the one she got for her husband.


A candle on Peterson's right forearm represents the first time her and her husband, Zach, bonded while eating birthday cake. Despite the emotional connection, she feels no remorse about removing it.

“I don’t like it aesthetically and so I don’t think it means as much as I want it to,” said Peterson, a graduate student at Northwestern University. She added that her husband said he would be upset if she removed it because he has etched a part of her onto his body.

With an estimated 10 million Americans having at least one tattoo and around 4,000 tattoo businesses in the U.S., tattoos  - once considered something taboo and even dangerous - have become more mainstream than flamboyantly colored hair or Brazilian waxes.

Even though tattooing is a harmless venture for most who are inked, many people remain unaware of the dangers involved in the process, not to mention the removal procedure should they change their mind years down the road.

Psychologist Jordi Quoidbach, of Harvard University, and colleagues reported in  

the journal Science by found that people change over time and that they are no longer the same person they were decades before.

The researchers studied over 19,000 people aged 18-68 and asked them how much they changed in the past decade. They also asked them how much they expected to change in the next 10 years.

The study found that the older the participant, the less he or she said they changed and expected to change.

Peterson said she’s not the same person she was when she first got her tattoos.

“I feel like back then if I did make a mistake it wasn’t a big deal,” she said. “I’d get more to cover it up. But now there’s just no way I’d want to cover it up with another tattoo. I’d rather just get rid of it.”

Tattoos are permanent marks made when a pigment is inserted into the dermal layer. They have been an intricate cultural staple for centuries, from the Polynesians to African tribes, for reasons such as representing the journey from adolescence to maturity.

The oldest known  tattoo was found with the discovery of the Iceman in the Italian-Austrian border in 1991, the Smithsonian reported. He was carbon-dated to be around 5,200 years old.

Before the discovery of the Iceman, tattoos were dated back to the Egyptians - more specifically, female mummies. Some of the mummies had tattooed figurines on their bodies and limbs, according to the Smithsonian.

With the increased trend of body modification, people are now getting tattoos in unconventional places. Eyeball tattoos, also known as corneal tattooing, is the process of injecting the dye into the white part of the eye and is just one of these “unconventional” procedures.

While some have cited this practice as being valid for aesthetically medical purposes, such as patients who suffer from eye trauma or scarring, it is still one of the most dangerous procedures available.

“I haven’t seen too many in my line of work, but every so often someone will come in with one,” said optometrist Silvia Pileni, who owns her own practice on Michigan Avenue. “When you wear contacts or have an existing eye condition, your risks increase dramatically. It astounds me that with the health risks, people will still get these done.”

Blindness is just one of the possible consequences of eyeball tattooing, along with a toxic reaction and a reduction in pupil size due to the fact that the area tattooed reduces over time.

In 2010, the Illinois Senate proposed a ban on eyeball tattooing.

“Not all corneas act the same where this kind of procedure is concerned, and sometimes that even works against you when you are trying to get it removed. It could damage the cornea even further because of the UV reactive inks that are used against the whites of the eyes,” Pileni said.

On the other end of the health spectrum is tattoo removal, which poses a number of health risks of its own.

“We’ve been covering tattoos forever,” said Dale Grande, owner of Chicago Tattoo and Piercing Co. in Lakeview who added that they sometimes refer customers to laser removal before covering up a tattoo, especially if the original color is darker than the color used to cover it up.

“There’s always something that somebody doesn’t want, something that isn’t good anymore. George left or Jane took off, or something like that they want to cover up, for that there’s laser removal.”

Michelle Whitehall, a physician assistant specializing in tattoo removal at Steven Dayan, MD on Michigan Ave., said people are always coming in to get tattoos removed, regardless of how long they’ve had them.

“I see a lot of people who come to me wanting to remove something, and it doesn’t matter if they got it 15 years ago or 5 years ago,” said Whitehall. “The fact of the matter is these people don’t realize how much time and money it takes to remove even the smallest of markings.”

There are a variety of ways to remove tattoos, including dermabrasion (sanding the skin to remove layers of ink), cryosurgery (which freezes the area prior to removal) and excision (removing the tattoo with a scalpel and stitching the wound.) But the most common technique used today is lasering, which can effectively remove a tattoo with a minimal amount of scarring.

Whitehall does many laser removals.

“I always think if they had known how the process affects them, maybe they wouldn’t have done it,” she said. “But I’ve heard so many stories about people who say ‘I know that this was probably a bad idea,’ or ‘I know this is going to be expensive.’”

The type of laser used to remove tattoos depends on the pigment colors - yellow and green are the hardest to remove, while blue and black are the easiest.

Despite increased knowledge about health risks, Grande’s tattoo shop hasn’t been affected. He added that an increasing number of clients are coming to him with images of tattoos they found on the Internet.

“They used to come in and people would look around and see what we have hanging on the walls and say ‘oh, I want that,’” he said. “Now people come in with their phone. They come in with the images that they want to replicate.”

Grande said he has been in the business for 40 years. He said has seen tattoos become more socially accepted over the years.

“I started working in 1973 and haven’t stopped since,” said Grande.

Peterson said once she removes her tattoos, she will consider replacing the birthday candle, but stresses that she will take the time to make sure it’s “cohesive and meaningful.”

Regardless of the anticipated pain and cost, Peterson said she is fearless when it comes the removal process.

“I don’t really think about the pain. I know the pain’s going to be there,” she said. “I’m so self- conscious about them that I would go through it three times.”