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IF A TATTOO BECOMES TABOO...by Cheryl Robertson

DID YOU KNOW?
Early attempts to remove tattoos involved sanding the skin red raw – ouch
Having endured discomfort and sometimes outright pain getting a permanent tattoo, who in their right mind would then want to take it off?
Surprisingly, many people do. In the USA 14 percent of all adults have a tattoo, and of those between 17 percent experienced some form of tattoo regret, according to market research carried out in 2008. The American Society for Dermatologic Surgery estimated the number of people wanting tattoos removed at much higher - around 50 percent.
While the number of tattoo wearers in the UAE is drastically less, there is a steady trickle wanting these removed for varying reasons. Luckily for them, Dubai has the technology and able clinics that can eliminate an unwanted tattoo in a sometimes expensive but safe and effective way.
Head of Laser and Skin Care Department in Dubai Cosmetic Surgery, Olimpia Carmen, said: “It is not an easy process, but it is effective. You cannot do it in a rush. It has to be done layer by layer, session by session. If anyone asks me to speed up the process, I say - absolutely not.”
She handles about five cases of tattoo removals each week and uses the latest lasers on the market.
“A laser has different wave lengths that remove different colours of the tattoo’s ink,” explained Olympia.
“The light from a laser hits the particles of ink originally inserted into the skin. The blood and lymphatic system then clean out the tissue from that area, which all takes time.”
After a laser session, the affected area of the skin is usually red so an antibiotic ointment is regularly applied to the affected area. Patients are advised not to drink alcohol or use swimming pools during this treatment course in case of infection. The interval between sessions has to be about a month to allow the body to clear the small particles broken up by the laser treatment.
“The ink is like a foreign object, and always the body’s immune system is trying to remove it,” said Olimpia.
The entire process could take up to a year depending on conditions, but the results are remarkable – no scarring, and in most cases little trace of the original tattoo can be seen by the end of the treatment.
“There is hypo pigmentation for a while (where the skin will be lighter in colour), until it gains back its natural melanin,” said Olimpia.
Dr Al Rustom’s Medical & Day Care Surgery Centre in Al Wasl Road Dubai also uses the latest laser available.
Dr Al Rustom believed that technology had moved on considerably, saying: “Earlier methods in tattoo removal involved the use of dermabrasion, salabrasion, surgery and CO2 lasers, but these procedures left behind scars or lighter skin in place of the tattoo.”
There are however, still challenges for specialists to face depending on each individual case. The most difficult tattoos to remove are those put on by unprofessional tattooists, as it can be hard to determine the type of ink used.
“An approved tattoo parlour would have used FDA approved inks which are easy to identify,” said Olimpia.
Tattoo enthusiasts should be aware that the ink applied by a tattoo artist is done with the intention of it remaining there forever, so if there is a change of mind later on in life it will not be that simple. Someone not likely to change his mind is Arran Elmes, a Dubai resident currently studying law in a UK university, who had five tribal designs permanently tattooed onto his body.
“I probably wouldn’t remove any, but at the same time I wouldn’t get a tattoo done that couldn’t be covered by a T-shirt,” he said.
Dr Rustom stressed that more than 100 tattoo inks are used worldwide today. “Not knowing which tattoo ink it is, how deep or how much was used, makes it impossible for the physician to predict the degree of removal on any given tattoo,” he said.
However, as a general rule more than 95 percent fading of the tattoo is accomplished.
One risk of removing a tattoo is the possible formation of keloid, tissue that grows as the body tries to protect itself.
“When we remove a tattoo, sometimes people get keloid - then it is a little risky. In this case we combine a keloid treatment injection to calm down the keloid and then step by step remove the ink. But this process takes much longer,” said Olimpia.
Tattoo removal is obviously much more painful than getting a tattoo in the first place. “It is rather like a rubber band that is snapped onto your skin,” she said. An anaesthetic cream is usually applied to the affected area 30 minutes before treatment to ease this pain.
It is also fairly painful to the pocket. Removing a tattoo is more costly than applying one, and prices will vary considerably depending on the size, depth of ink within the skin, the location of a tattoo, ink used, plus the general health of the patient. In Dubai prices range from Dhs300 a session to Dhs4,500 a session. The number of sessions therefore differs too: professional tattoos can require one to 10 treatments, although between five to 10 treatment sessions are usually needed, whereas home-made tattoos usually require up to four treatments according to Dr Rustom.
So why do people have them removed? Take Mark Johnson - he believes that a tattoo is either “a permanent mark of temporary insanity” or in his case, “a mistake from a rebellious childhood”. At 14 he was overjoyed he had a tattoo of a well-known cartoon character prominently embedded into his arm, but now as a strapping 190m tall chap and broad with it he decided the cartoon didn’t exactly project the ideal self-image.
In the UAE, altering a person’s looks and therefore tattooing, is haraam (forbidden). Some Muslims, unaware of the cultural implications initially, sometimes face an outcry from the family to have it removed, particularly in the cases of older teenagers.
Other reasons to seek removal including changes in circumstances to suit a different lifestyle or career (a skull or that depicting evil would not be good for a career such as a minister of religion, or an army officer), and if an ex-beloved’s name is tattooed into the skin.
“Ugly 1970s designs are also removed simply because of that fact. Also tattooed eyebrow shapes change with fashion, so some people get these removed too,” said Olimpia. “A mixture of black and red ink is generally used in eyebrow tattooing, but sometimes, over the years, the body eliminates one of the pigments such as the black, and so the eyebrow becomes more red, which looks odd.”
At other times, more often when the original tattoo work was not carried out by a professional, the black ink within a tattoo turns green, and understandably the wearer wants it removed.
All colours used in a tattoo can be erradicated, and according to Dr Rustom’s, dark colours (that is red and black) are easiest to remove, followed by purples and oranges, with greens and yellows being the most reluctant to disappear.
So the secret is, to think very carefully before going out there and getting a tattoo, although you can be comforted in the knowledge that should you do so and then change your mind, there is always a solution

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