Your Blank CanvasDespite dramatic improvements in laser tattoo removal throughout the past two decades, Durham residents have actually become more thoughtful about the tattoos they are getting, said Kathryn Moore, founder and owner of Dogstar Tattoo Company.
When Dogstar first opened its doors in 1997, most people were purchasing a generic kind of tattoo, known in the industry as flash, Moore said. Flash, or tattoo flash, are stereotypical tattoo designs often found on parlor walls or in a large binder provided for clients to peruse.
“People really didn’t give it a whole lot of thought,” Moore said. “It was very common for people to walk in the door and say, ‘I’m not sure what I want to do... how about that one?’ These days, people are much more discerning. They have given it a lot more thought and have researched [their designs].”
Dr. Claude Burton, a dermatologist of the Duke Dermatologic Laser Center, has seen some of the negative consequences of impulsive tattoos first-hand for more than 20 years. Since the early 1990s, Burton has sought to perfect the art of laser tattoo removal.
“For me, the fun was figuring out how to remove tattoo pigment from the skin without causing any scarring,” Burton said. “Once I figured out how to do that, I focused on training other people how to do it.”
The machine used for tattoo removal is one of several laser devices used at the Duke Dermatologic Laser Center, and is also used to treat various congenital malformations. The most common types of tattoos that residents at the center remove are names and gang-affiliated tattoos.
“As recently as 10 years ago, it would take 12 to 15 treatments [to fully remove a tattoo],” Burton said. “Now, it can be done in as few as three.”
Burton also noted that the process will continue to become more efficient, which means faster and fewer treatments.
Considering the recent improvements in modern tattoo removal, something doesn’t add up: When tattoo removal was entirely experimental, why weren’t clients more active in deciding which design to wear permanently? Now that tattoos are erasable, why are current clients more cautious with their body art than they were 20 years ago?
The answer lies in an expanded client base.
“Twenty years ago, it was just a rougher crowd. Now we have people with corporate jobs coming in,” Moore said. “Usually, a very educated customer is coming in the door. Twenty years ago that would have been the exception, whereas today that is what we expect.”
Moore said this shift is largely due to the diversity of her clients at Dogstar.
“When I opened my shop, basically there was a lot of racism, a lot of homophobia and just sort of general nastiness. There was a lot of sexism especially. I was pretty much the only woman in the area tattooing at that point,” Moore said. “That was one of the driving forces in opening up Dogstar… that’s one of the things that’s actually kept me in the game, because we get everybody in the door. Sometimes it’s literally a corporate CEO sitting next to someone working at McDonald’s.”
Durham resident Ted Phillips, Trinity ’13, got his first tattoo at Dogstar last year, and has noticed a similar trend.
“The biggest rift in attitudes toward tattoos is generational,” Phillips said. “My parents were very anti-tattoo for me and my sisters, not forbidding us, but also making clear their distaste. I think tattoos used to be found only on shady, undesirable types, but it seems that now they have transcended to near-normalcy.”
Phillips added that visible tattoos are not as common on Duke’s campus as they are in Durham.
Since coming to Duke, senior Cesar Utuy has finished a massive piece, covering his entire back and right side. The piece has deep personal symbolism for Utuy, and took more than 14 hours to complete.
“I wanted something I could be proud of and could relate to, yet something that was for my eyes, something only I knew of on a daily basis and I was able to show someone if I was comfortable with them,” Utuy said. “Even then, most people only get glimpses, and I chose it so that it could only be studied in depth by someone I cared about.”
Some Duke students conceal large body art, while others such as senior Devin Jones get smaller pieces, which is probably more common for students.
“I find that people are often surprised that I have a tattoo… but I’ve never been ashamed to tell people about it, in any group of people,” Jones said. “It’s part of who I am.”
Phillips noted those who don’t have tattoos sometimes think tattoos will have a greater impact on their lives than they really do.
“I am shocked by how little it affects my day-to-day life, since it lies under the T-shirt area,” Phillips said. “Unless the tat is on your face or something, chances are it’s not going to be as big a deal as you think it is. Have some fun!”
Burton also warned that not all tattoos are created equally. White and “Carolina blue” pigments are much more difficult to remove than other colors. Often, people experience allergic reactions to certain colored pigments, most commonly red. Burton said in the 20 years he has offered tattoo removal, he couldn’t recall seeing an allergic reaction to black ink.
Despite the low-risk factor of modern tattoo removal, anyone who is considering getting ink should take some time and really reflect on the decision, Moore said. For those who cannot commit 100 percent, there are even more expensive tattoo inks that are manufactured to be absolutely erasable, and are easily removed with a single session of laser treatment.
For first-time tattoo recipients, Utuy offers this advice:
“I would tell them not to settle, either on the tattoo design or the artist doing the work,” Utuy said. “Choose something that holds major significance to you and that you will look back on with no regrets. Something that not only has an emotional hold on you, but also represents an ideal you hold on to.”