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Ink regrets

A tattoo may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but now what?

By Jared Curtis


A common bond exists among many people throughout the world. Some are proud to display the bond as much as possible, while others cover it up out of necessity or in some cases, shame.

We’re talking about tattoos, body art that has been around for centuries but exploded into popular culture in the grunge/alternative years of the 1990s.

According to U.S. News & World Report, tattooing was the sixth fastest growing retail venture of the 1990s, behind the Internet, paging services, bagels, computers and cellular phone service. People who previously thought only servicemen or criminals had tattoos (or tats as they are commonly refered to) started getting inked up. Tribal work, barbed wire wraps and the infamous “tramp stamp” became the norm, but soon those trends became oversaturated. And now as people grow older and out of their youthful phases, they are looking to cover up the work or seek out laser removal.

“Laser removal has become one of our more common procedures, and there is definitely a demand for it,” said board certified plastic surgeon and laser specialist, Dr. David Robbins, medical director of Des Moines Plastic Surgery.

Another process — cover-up tattoos — has become increasingly more common, too. Just ask Dave Connor, owner of Mid Air & Ink.

“It can be more of a challenge to cover something up rather than creating an original,” he said. “You have to lay out a plan, but white ink can be a powerful allie.”

The tattoo business is booming. With more than 20,000 parlors operating in the U.S., it isn’t slowing down.

So cover up your barbed wire arm band with long sleeves and pretend that tribal makes you part of the white people clan of the mid ’90s, as we take a look at the effects of unwanted tattoos and the way professionals deal with ink regrets.

To regret or not to regret
According to a 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center, 36 percent of Americans ages 18 to 35 have at least one tattoo. It was also reported that 45 million people (no age range) have at least one tattoo. Compare that to a study Life Magazine did in 1936 that reported 6 percent of the population having at least one tattoo.

Tony Buns, Chase Swanson and Brian Ivanovich were like many kids at the age of 18. Drawn to tattoos, all three had numerous work done but have taken different approaches to the aftermath.

Ivanovich, an employee at Mid Air and Ink, recently received some coverup work by Connor over a black outline of the state of Iowa with a skull and crossbones on the inside of both forearms.

“I got it the day I turned 18 and would suggest against getting your first tattoo the day you turn 18,” he laughs.

To the untrained eye, it’s hard to tell Ivanovich had something other than the Mastodon (a prehistoric elephant/mammoth) currently covering the area.

“I wanted an animal, and what’s more of a badass animal than a Mastodon?” he asks. “Dave started in September and has done a fucking awesome job.”

Connor likes to work with customers on “more original and thought-out themes.” He is against anything that could ruin further pieces.

“I like to help customers look down the road past the tattoo they are getting now,” he said.

Ivanovich didn’t hate his previous tattoos, but the area they were in is crucial for sleeve work.

“It was prime real estate,” he said. “My original tattoos would have been way too hard to tie into a sleeve.”

Swanson has more of a love-hate relationship with his tattoos. He has two — a Hawkeye (he ultimately ended up attending college at Iowa State University) on his shoulder and the logo of popular ’90s band Smashing Pumpkins on his stomach.

“I got them both when I turned 18,” Swanson said. “I was a dumb kid and never really thought anything through. I often acted on ridiculous impulses.”

Swanson got the Pumpkins logo because, at the time, they were his favorite group.

“I really loved that band and thought they would never stop rocking,” he said. “But even when I got the tattoo they had already started sucking; I just didn’t know it yet. (Lead singer/founder) Billy Corgan is an asshole in my eyes.”

Swanson regrets the tattoo and has looked into professional removal or covering it up. Since the tattoo is black and red (the easiest colors to remove), Swanson has numerous options. Unfortunately, he took the task at hand one night after a few drinks.

“I was drunk enough one time I thought I could burn it off,” he laughs. “It didn’t work out and left a nice scar.”

Swanson cringes at the site of his tattoo on a daily basis.

“I get out of the shower and think, ‘Why the fuck did I get that?’ I could have gotten something a lot cooler,” he said. “I learned the hard way that the things you love at 18 aren’t the same things you love at 32.”

Buns also received numerous tats at a young age, but likes to look at his as pieces of his past, even if they are a bit faded.

“I got my first tattoos from a friend, Jerry Myers, who was starting out,” Buns said. “I was drawing different pieces for him, and he would tattoo me as a gift.”

Buns has nine tattoos, including some tribal, to which he says, “Who didn’t get a tribal tattoo in 1998?” Originally he had a small tribal on his shoulder but decided to cover it up with a logo of the popular Brazilian metal band, Sepultura. And even though lead singer/founder Max Cavalera left the band around the same time, Buns doesn’t regret the logo.

“I loved Sepultura; they were a bitchin’ band,” he said. “The logo was cool in general, and I thought we could hide the tribal with it. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that well.”

Connor doesn’t think people should be against band logos, even if the group is no longer around.

“I don’t think people should get band logos covered,” he said. “That logo signifies an important time in someone’s life.”

The tattoo has also helped Buns communicate with fellow fans who couldn’t speak English.

“I was sitting in a hot tub in L.A. with these people from Brazil who could barely speak English,” he said. “But they knew Sepultura’s music and the logo, so we communicated without really talking.”

To this day, Buns isn’t too worried about being able to see a tattoo inside another one.

“I didn’t really care, and it never bothered me. I was young and into heavy metal,” he laughs. “When I got it, the shading was real nice. But over time it just became washed out.”

He has no regrets and thinks of the tat as a piece of his history.

“I’ve never regretted getting it. It was a sign of the times, and it brings back some good memories. My only saving grace is that at least it’s not barbed wire,” he laughs.

Laser removal
If one is unhappy with his or her tattoo and wants to completely get rid of it, laser removal has become the “go-to” procedure. According to www.tattoohealth.org, in the last decade tattoo removal has become an even bigger business. Estimates show that more than 50 percent of individuals who have a tattoo later regret having it and want it removed. For the past three decades, tattoo removal was done using unsophisticated surgery techniques, all of which left individuals with scarring. However, with recent advances in medical technology, laser therapy has become the standard.

“It takes anywhere from five to 12 treatments to remove a tattoo, but that’s a broad number because every tattoo is different,” said Dr. Robbins. “Certain colors are easier — red, black — and some are tougher — blue, green.”

Dr. Robbins says the Q-YAG Laser is top of the line, breaking up ink particles so the body can reabsorb them. Starting cost is $75 (per session) for the first square inch and then $15 for each additional square inch, which can add up to a lot more than the original price of the tattoo. Dr. Robbins calls the 8- to 10-minute process, “tolerable pain.”

“It feels like a rubberband quickly snapping the skin,” he said. “It’s just like a tattoo. If it’s over a bone or in a thin skin area, it’s going to hurt more. I’ve had numerous people start the process but then quit before the treatment is complete.”

Tattoos with names of significant others are the most common removal requests Dr. Robbins encounters.

“We deal with names more than anything,” he said. “But it’s really any tattoo that someone got in their youth. We get a lot of parents who got tattoos in college, and it doesn’t fit their life anymore.”

Anyone can go through the laser removal process, but for some, it can affect the pigment in their skin.

“The darker the skin, the greater risk to affect pigment,” he said. “It can leave a light outline of the tattoo, so we discourage people with more pigment. We also discourage people with big pieces because it’s going to cost them a fortune to get rid of it.”

Dr. Robbins has “nothing against tattoos,” but offers advice to those looking to get them.
“I always tell people if they are thinking about getting a tattoo to think about if you would still want it 10 years from now. Because if not, it’s going to cost a lot more to have it removed,” he said.

Connor has been tattooing for 13 years. Starting out as an artist/airbrush artist, Connor’s progression into tattooing was natural.

“The more I learned about tattooing, the more I respected it,” he said. “I became very influenced and wanted to get involved in something more permanent than airbrushing.”

Connor doesn’t have an exact number but says he has tattooed “thousands” in his career. He specializes in custom work, free hand, abstract new school, skulls, wildlife and portraits. Since he has been tattooing for more than a decade, he has seen the previously mentioned barbed wire/tribal tattoo overflow first hand, which is why he tries to stay away from those designs.

“I won’t do tribal because I don’t like working on anything that has been overdone and unoriginal,” he said. “The best part of the job is the variety. I don’t get stuck doing the same thing every day.”

Along with tribal works, Connor also doesn’t tattoo names of significant others.

“Friends don’t let friends get significant others’ names on them,” he said. “I’ll tattoo children’s names, but I’m not interested in tattooing significant others’ names. I think it’s a jinx.”

Connor says that cover-up tattoos fluctuate between 10 and 25 percent of his overall business.

“Most of the time people come in and have an idea of what they want to cover it with, but most of the time their ideas don’t work,” he said. “Cover-ups are tricky because you have to hide lines with color and shading. And a lot of time, people don’t understand you can’t cover something dark with something light.”

Connor has a few pieces that work to cover up.

“Skulls and floral type pieces work really well,” he said. “Some people don’t want flowers because a lot of people have them, but what they don’t realize is there are a million different flowers out there.”

Although he owns a tattoo shop, Connor isn’t against someone getting a tattoo covered up.

“I’m OK with it, especially if it’s in an area that is visible at work because you can’t really cover that up with a bigger tattoo. But I haven’t seen very many perfect results with the laser,” he said. “If a person isn’t into tattoos anymore, then I think it’s the way to go. But if they love tattoos, we can help them out and figure a way to cover it up.”

Connor stresses that the most important decision for those considering a tattoo is to think before they act.

“Do your research and don’t make quick decisions unless you are really into tattooing,” he said. CV


Caption: Chase Swanson shows off his shoulder Hawkeye and Smashing Pumpkins logo. Photo by Jared Curtis


Caption: Brian Ivanovich shows the cover-up Mastodon tattoo Dave Connor created over his former tattoo, a black outline of the state of Iowa with a skull and crossbones inside. Photo by Jared Curtis


Caption: Tattoo artist Dave Conner works on a client at his shop Mid Air & Ink. Photo by Jared Curtis


Caption: Tony Buns shows of his Sepultura logo which was a cover-up of a tribal on his shoulder.


Caption: A before and after photo of Dave Conner’s cover-up work. Special to Cityview


Caption: The before and after of a laser removal process. Contact Dr. Robbins at The Laser Center at Des Moines Plastic Surgery (www.dsmplasticsurgery.com) for free consultations for anyone interested in laser removal. Special to Cityview


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