Lasers, tattoo removal, and second chances.
There was a time when tattoos were taboo, and you thought long and hard before getting one. Today 20 percent of American adults are inked. Tattoos just don’t carry the stigma they once did—unless it’s a particular kind of tattoo, in a particular place on the body.
Fortunately, as our penchant for getting tattoos has grown, so has our ability to get rid of them. In the 1960s researchers started experimenting with lasers to remove tattoos, and since then the technology has dramatically improved. Now we can erase our past, whether it’s a sailor’s bad decision from overseas or a gang identifier that prevents its owner from getting a job—and could even get him killed.
Sociologist and CHF Beckman Legacy Project research fellow Joseph Klett traces the modern history of tattoo removal through the stories of his father—a retired sailor—and ex-gang members in California.
Hosts: Michal Meyer and Bob Kenworthy
Reporter: Joseph Klett
Producer: Mariel Carr
Associate Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez
Additional Production: Kyrie Greenberg
Audio Engineer: Dan Powell
Voiceover artist: David Dault
Original music composed by Dan Powell
Additional music courtesy of the Audio Network and Free Music Archive
Rethinking Ink: Lasers, Tattoo Removal, and Second Chances
Michal: Hello and welcome to Distillations, the science, culture and history podcast. I’m Michal Meyer, a historian of science and editor of Distillations Magazine, here at the Chemical Heritage Foundation.
Bob: And I am Bob Kenworthy, CHF’s in-house chemist.
Michal: Picture this: a bearded man hiking in the mountains, covered in tattoos. This could be a hipster in 2017, but it also fits the description of Otzi the Iceman, the name given to a 5200 year- old mummified man found in 1991, in the mountains where Italy meets Austria.
Bob: Besides just being Europe’s oldest known human mummy, Otzi’s marks provided the earliest evidence of a tattooed human.
Michal: Archaeologists think many of Otzi’s tattoos were therapeutic—they were in places that would have suffered strains from hiking. But they think they were also probably symbolic. Over thousands of years, and spanning the world, people have been getting inked. Archaeologists
believe that most of the tattoos they’ve discovered on bodies from ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt were symbolic, signifying things such as—
Bob: Status— Michal: Power— Bob: Protection— Michal: And religion.
Michal: Of course there’s also a painful side of tattoo history, of enslaved people who were marked against their wills, or criminals who had tattoos forced upon them. But for thousands of years, whether chosen or not, tattoos symbolized their wearers’ identities—and in permanent ways. They lasted forever.
Bob: Until now. Forty years ago scientists started figuring out how to use lasers to remove tattoos. And in the past ten years the technology has dramatically improved.
Michal: And this has been really helpful, because people change, and now the marks on their bodies can change with them.
Bob: Joseph Klett is a sociologist and CHF Beckman Legacy Project Research Fellow who’s spent the past year learning about laser tattoo removal. The topic had special significance to him because he has a personal connection to the process.
ACT I: THE BLACK PANTHER
Joseph Klett: The first tattoo I ever saw was my dad’s. He had a huge black panther that covered most of his forearm. He got it in 1968 when he was in the Navy.
I say he “had” a panther tattoo. My dad’s still around. His tattoo is not.
I was just five years old when he decided to have it removed. But we didn’t talk about it until 30 years later, this past December when I visited him at home in New Jersey.
>> CAR SOUNDS Let’s go see my dad.
>> WALKS TO DOOR, can hear dad say “hi” without voice box
Joseph: My dad had a laryngectomy several years ago. He doesn’t have a voice box anymore and he uses a synthetic one to speak. It doesn’t come across so well on tape, so we’re using a voiceover. I asked him to tell me about the tattoo removal process.
Frank Klett >> If you want to get rid of them the only way is to burn them off. And at the time it was $100 a square inch and they would only do a square inch at a time because it was a third degree burn. So they would have to use the laser to that square inch, then give it six weeks to heal and then you'd come back and they'd do another square inch.
Joseph >> So how long, start to finish, does that process take?
Frank >> I want to say nine months to a year.
Joseph: And it was expensive too.
Dad >> It cost me thirty to have it put on but close to four thousand to have it taken off.
Joseph: It took FORTY trips to the doctor to remove the tattoo. I remember him coming home from the appointments in sheer agony. I remember boxes of gauze dressing that he was constantly changing. And the results weren’t great. For all that work the tattoo was never completely erased. After 10 months of treatment the black panther had disappeared, but a white shadow took its place—a scar that remains to this day.
Until we finally spoke I always wondered why he went through all the trouble. Today one in five American adults has a tattoo. Tattoos just don’t have the same stigma they once did. Unless it’s a particular kind of tattoo, in a particular place on the body.
Over the past year I’ve been researching tattoo removal. I’ve learned that while there are many people trying to erase the name of an ex-lover, these aren’t the most common tattoos being removed. More often, it’s tattoos from time spent in institutions—places like the military, or prison.
When my dad got the panther this country was a different place, with far fewer tattoos.
Frank >> At that time before you had to be cool to have a tattoo. Today tattoos are in— back then they were not in—and the armed forces were the only places they could really be seen, and most of us got ‘em in places you wouldn’t see ‘em.
Joseph: Despite how common they are today, tattoos still mean something. But what they mean depends on who’s looking.
Joseph: My dad joined the navy at 17. He was still in high school. He was 24 years old and stationed in Hong Kong when he got the panther tattoo.
Joseph >> Do you remember what the shop looked like, or where it was in the city?
Frank >> I wouldn’t give it credit for being a storefront. It was like a door in an alley, and you go down some stairs and around a corner is an old guy sitting there with a candle sharpening his needles.
Joseph >> Do you remember how long it took? Or what you felt like when you were getting it done?
Frank >> It seemed like forever—I remember that he did it with—the really old fashioned way—it was not electric. I t was a bamboo stick and he would tap the other end of it and taptaptaptap it was all done manually.
Joseph: This was 1968. The only people my dad knew with tattoos were other sailors.
Frank >> The navy at that time was notorious for tattoos.
Frank >> It made you feel like you were in a group of more experienced people. You know, like, we know everything there is to know so we can have tattoos.
Joseph >> So almost as if earned them
Frank >> Exactly.
ACT II: DECORATED SOLDIERS
Joseph: Now keep in mind: up through the 1980s, not that many people had tattoos. Getting one was a big decision—it was going to last forever, right? So whatever symbol you chose, you were committing to for the rest of your life.
Joseph >> Can you remember any times in the 80s or late 70s where someone gave you grief for your tattoos?
Frank >> No. I must have looked so bad with the tattoos that nobody wanted to mess with me.
Joseph: But people change. My dad left the military in 1979 and became a civilian in San Diego, CA. He was 35 years old and working in an office as a computer engineer. It was the first time he was an adult outside of the military.
In San Diego the weather was great, but my dad always wore long sleeve shirts to work. He wanted to play it safe. He was a professional now, with a wife and kids, and he had to look the part. In 1986, about eighteen years after he got the black panther, my dad started laser treatments to have his tattoo removed. That same year, a place called the Beckman Laser Institute opened in Irvine, CA, about 100 miles north of San Diego.
The Beckman Laser Institute, or BLI, is a unique place: it’s part scientific research and part medical clinic—all of it devoted to laser technology. They’re known for removing birthmarks on children, zapping tumors, and diagnosing cancers. As research advances the clinic does too, so
they’re always treating patients with cutting-edge tools. In 1986 their lasers were much more sophisticated than the ones used on dad.
Just a bit of background here: The word laser—it stands for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. Scientists have discovered that focused light beams can provoke particles of matter to move around. The particular substance of those beams, and the frequency of their energy, can have a range of effects.
For example, carbon dioxide lasers work by channeling infrared light through a beam of gas. It was one of these lasers that heated the skin of my father’s arm until it burned down to the layer beneath the ink. This is why he was left with a scar after his panther was removed. He’d lost the layers of skin that turn brown in sunlight. Carbon dioxide lasers aren’t known for their precision in tattoo removal. Dr. Stewart Nelson is the medical director of the Beckman Laser Institute. And he used those lasers too, before he got better ones.
Dr. Nelson >> Well before, what we were doing is essentially a controlled dermabrasion, I mean, it was a procedure that was highly effective in terms of pigment removal, but it left the patient with a horrible scar. So essentially you replaced one mark, the tattoo, with another mark, namely a scar.
Joseph: And in terms of patient recovery...
Dr. Nelson >> You left them with an open wound. It was painful, essentially left them with an open burn for about a week after the laser treatment.
Joseph: Right around the time my dad was suffering from the zaps of the carbon dioxide laser, the BLI started working with the much more effective Q-switched lasers.
Dr. Nelson >> The optics are such, on the inside of the device, that the laser produces a very, very short pulse of light because the tattoo pigment particles that are in the skin are very, very small. In order to destroy a target that's very, very small, you have to heat that target up very quickly, and so you have to get all of that laser energy in a very, very short period of time to destroy those tattoo pigmented granules underneath the skin.
Joseph: Dr. Nelson calls Q-switched lasers an exponential improvement. The procedure is quicker and requires fewer visits. No open wounds mean no infections and no scarring. And it’s less painful.
So the BLI had these fantastic tools for removing tattoos but rarely had the opportunity to use them. That all changed in 1987 after a visit from a local judge. Soon Dr. Nelson was treating five patients a week and removing sixty tattoos a year.
ACT III: REMOVING STIGMA
Judge Carter >> I'm Dave Carter. I'm a judge in the United States Federal District court in the central district of California.
Joseph: Over the course of his career Judge Carter has seen a lot of parolees pass through the judicial system. Since the early 1980s his job has been to help them avoid crime, quit drugs, and re-enter civilian life. But he soon started to notice something that was holding a lot of them back: their tattoos.
Judge Carter >> I recognized that was a common denominality [sic]. And that is gang members, at least hardcore gang members, were literally walking billboards for their gangs.
Joseph: Even though these parolees has left their gang affiliations behind, they were stuck with symbols that marked who they used to be—
Judge Carter >> It doesn’t matter if it’s the Aryan brotherhood with lightning bolts or 666 for the devil or Hispanic gangs with three dots, happy face, clown face claiming a particular area. You can almost read tattoos like a book.
Joseph: So Judge Carter decided to do something about it. Something that challenged the very definition of a justice system.
Judge Carter >> You know, as a judge you start making the decision how rehabilitative do you want to be versus how much punishment oriented are you going to be.
Joseph: Carter describes his approach as “holistic.” The parolees he worked with had already been incarcerated, so he felt punishment had been served. Rehabilitation meant keeping them from being incarcerated again. But he saw that it was incredibly difficult to keep someone out of jail if they couldn’t get a job. And the tattoos were making that part pretty hard.
Judge Carter >> But you can’t understand how difficult it is for somebody who has
tattoos all over their face, neck, and arms and hands to get employment. They can’t be an apprentice plumber, they can't work in half of the building craft industries because they're going to be turned down right away.
Joseph: Carter wanted to help people remove their tattoos to help them get jobs, but he also wanted to send a message to the community.
Judge Carter >> I was thinking, you know, if you could turn one life around, it has a ripple effect. If you can take one gang member who's tough, and that person is willing to take off that prideful gang insignia, you're sending a message that first of all, you're getting out of the gang without being jumped out. And the second thing is, the tougher the better. You're walking around the neighborhood and saying to other young kids coming up, "You know, I was there. I did this, but I'm out and here's the reason why." Because when you take a tattoo off, you have made a huge statement. In fact, you're in danger oftentimes with the very gang that you belong to.
Joseph: He knew getting rid of their tattoos was important. But he didn’t really know where to begin, and he didn’t really have any money.
Judge Carter >> So we initially went to a couple private practitioners who claimed that they could take tattoos off with acid. Well, that didn’t work too well. Thank goodness it was the hand and left minimal scarring, but that didn’t work.
Joseph: But then something happened.
Judge Carter >> I was hearing for the first time that was something called “laser” which sounds so common now, but back in the 1980s this was the brave new world. Lasers?
What are those? Why would they work on tattoos?
Joseph: Judge Carter started going around to different hospitals, trying to find a way to get his parolees’ tattoos removed. But he couldn’t find any takers until he stumbled upon the newly opened BLI. At the time the clinic was mostly doing laser surgery for wealthier patients. And Judge Carter showed up and asked—
Judge Carter >> Could we bring a bunch of prisoners down to the institute and can you reduce your cost to make it affordable?
Joseph: There was no way Carter’s parolees could afford thousands of dollars to remove their tattoos. So he asked them to chip in what they could, Dr. Nelson donated his time, and the BLI itself only charged a small fee. After all his searching, Carter had stumbled upon the place with the most sophisticated laser technology AND they were willing to cut him a deal. One of the ways Judge Carter kept costs down on his end was by being strict about which tattoos he’d help people remove.
Judge Carter >> We didn’t have enough resources or finances to remove all of the tattoos on your arms, or your chest, or your back, that was tens of thousands of dollars worth of work. But what we could do was remove the tattoos on your face and neck, and maybe that would give you a chance of employment, but probably you still had to wear a long-sleeved shirt.
Joseph: Carter found another way to stretch his resources.
Judge Carter >> They were offering to give them anesthesia, but anesthesia costs too much. So I just told them, you’re not getting anesthesia. You’ll last five or six minutes. You’re a tough guy. That’s it.
ACT IV: THE NICE THING ABOUT FACE TATTOOS
Joseph: Luckily for Judge Carter, Dr. Nelson was into the idea.
Dr. Nelson >> We have the technology. It’s a way to give back to the community.
Dr. Nelson >> I’m happy to do it. The judge is happy. We have a deal. He keeps me out of jury duty and so far that deal’s been held up! This is my civic responsibility, is taking care of these kids, so as long as I'm off jury duty that's fair.
Joseph: A lot of stars had to align to make this deal work. It wasn’t just that Dr. Nelson was so willing to help—it was that his research and clinical work were already focused on lasers. It also helped that the Carter’s parolees had some of the easiest tattoos to remove.
Dr. Nelson >>The nice thing about scalp and face is that they’re very vascular, so those areas actually respond really really well. A lot of times we can get those tattoos out in
two to three treatments. But someone who’s got like an arm or something like that- that’s going to take more treatments. Legs will take many more treatments. But we’re not getting patients from Judge Carter like that. He doesn’t care. He wants people with hands, neck, face, scalp so they can be out in the workplace without having a workplace issue.
Joseph: The color of a tattoo also affects how it reacts to lasers. Multi-colored tattoos are tricky.
Dr. Nelson >> The dark blue-black tattoos, which are the common ones you see in kids who are involved in gangs, they’re made up of carbon and graphite, those appear to respond very well to both devices.
<<AMBIENT SOUNDS OF TATTOO REMOVAL>>
Joseph: Watching a tattoo get removed is pretty wild. The doctor sits alongside the patient, much like the tattoo artist originally did. The laser itself looks like one of those portable air conditioners with a hose and it ends in a hand-held applicator. Everyone in the room wears eye protection. The doctor traces the tattoo with the laser applicator, millimeter by millimeter. With each pulse of the laser there’s a flash of light. Wherever the laser strikes immediately turns white as moisture in the skin turns to steam. About twenty minutes later, the white is gone and the ink will be noticeably lighter – if you can see it at all. For a tattoo the size of your palm, the process takes less than ten minutes.
Dr. Nelson >> Yeah, well I mean, you're delivering all this laser energy in a billionth of a second. So yeah, you heat up and rupture the fragments of the particles immediately.
Joseph: Now it’s up to the body to do the rest of the work—
Dr. Nelson >> Over the course of the subsequent six weeks, the body's immune system comes in and removes the fragments of the carbon and graphite that we've ruptured into little tiny pieces.
Joseph: The reason blue black ink responds so well to Q-switch lasers is because it absorbs light well. Other colors are more stubborn. It doesn’t matter how much energy Dr. Nelson shoots at a red or yellow tattoo: if the color won’t absorb the light, the ink won’t rupture, and your body won’t have the chance to clear it away.
Judge Carter says that 99% of the people who had tattoos removed in the program not only got off drugs, they got off of crime.
Dr. Nelson >> I mean, the patients are very enthusiastic about it. These are people that, you know, "Hey, man, I made a mistake. I want to correct the mistake." And I totally get that. I tell them, ‘Hey man, I’m in the mistake correction business. I’m not here to judge you.”
ACT V: THE RETURN OF THE BLACK PANTHER
Joseph: Despite the success of the program, it’s just a small part of what both Dr. Nelson and Judge Carter do. Dr. Nelson spends most of his time removing vascular birthmarks from kids, and he’s actually world famous for it. Judge Carter wants to keep parolees out of his courtroom and out of prison, but I learned that there was something else, something personal, that motivated him to set up this program. It turns out that Judge Carter also served in Vietnam, just like my dad.
Judge Carter >> I was with a pretty well-known unit in Vietnam with the United States Marine Corps. I was a young officer with the Walking Dead.
Joseph: During the Vietnam War the 1st Battalion 9th Marines suffered the highest casualty rate in Marine Corps history. This earned them the nickname the “Walking Dead.” Among the injured soldiers who survived, many became addicted to heroin after receiving opiates in recovery. Coming home wasn’t easy.
Judge Carter >> There was no homecoming. There were no parades down 5th avenue.
Joseph: Carter and his fellow soldiers went off to Vietnam thinking they were saving their country. They returned home to massive protests opposing what was the most unpopular war in
Judge Carter >> You didn't wear your uniform. Nobody wanted to date you.
Joseph: Carter saw what a painful transition it was for so many of his fellow veterans, that so many of them became hooked on drugs and went to prison.
Judge Carter >> Coming out of that experience, I was thinking about how many kids were out there on the street who were Marines and Army personnel and Navy and Air Force and had served honorably and had just gotten whacked out. Those weren't gang members, but it was kind of that whole holistic idea, what can we do across society to make society safer?
Joseph: He understood that the gang members passing through his courtroom were also caught between two worlds. He wanted to give them a second chance.
Judge Carter >> As long as we took a risk with low offenders like narcotics users and not bank robbers with guns or murderers or rapists, you know, we could afford to take those chances, I thought, for society and just for the taxpayer and just for these people.
Joseph: For my dad and so many other people caught between the worlds, tattoos are marks that prevent them from leaving their past behind them.
I’ve never liked that my dad endured so much pain and expense to get his tattoo removed— and I’ve hated that the result looked so much worse in the end. He says he has no regrets about doing it. But if it were just a few years later maybe he would have encountered the more effective Q- switch lasers. At least his tattoo would have been completely erased rather than scarred.
Joseph: You’d think after seeing all my dad went through I’d avoid tattoos myself. It didn’t stop me but it did make me think long and hard about what I wanted to get. And so when I finally decided to get my first one at age 30 I knew exactly what I wanted: I wanted my dad’s black panther. From my earliest memories it’s been the definition of a tattoo. It’s also a tribute to my father, and the history that shaped our family. The tattoo has taken on new meaning this month, as I become a father myself.
My panther is on my forearm, just like my dad’s, and now that I think about it it’s done in all black ink so it’d be pretty easy to remove by laser. Maybe I’ll think about it after a few years of being a dad. That way my son can get it next
Michal: Distillations is more than a great podcast. We’re also a multimedia magazine.
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Michal: For Distillations, I’m Michal Meyer.
Bob: And I’m Bob Kenworthy.
Michal and Bob: Thanks for listening.