From bikers to lawyers, tattoos are universal

Body art has been mainstream for years, but concerns remain

Consuming Interests

August 20, 2006|By KRISTEN GERENCHER | KRISTEN GERENCHER,MCCLATCHY-TRIBUNE

Got ink?

Sporting a tattoo or two is no longer the taboo counterculture act it once was. But it can still present employment, health and financial concerns, experts said.

Once the exclusive domain of bikers, gangs and other rough riders, tattoos have gone mainstream with the help of TV programs such as Miami Ink. Today, brokers and secretaries are just as likely as bartenders and street punks to have one.

Advances in tattoo-removing laser technology have driven more people to sample the trade, adding images to their legs, feet, arms, lower backs and other places, said Dr. Bruce Katz, director of the JUVA Skin and Laser Center in New York.

"Obviously tattoo placement has become a lot more popular in the last five to 10 years, and I think that's because they know they can get them removed without scars," Katz said.

Twenty years ago, the only removal option was dermabrasion, which would create a scar the size of the tattoo, he said. "It was very noticeable and often worse than the tattoo."

About one in four people have tattoos and 14 percent have body piercings, according to a study of 500 people published in the June 7 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. Tattooing was equally common for men and women, while women were more likely to have body piercing.

People considering body art may want to do the removal math before they lay bare their flesh for the needle.

At Lyle Tuttle Tattooing in San Francisco, tattoos start at $80 and go up by design and placement, owner Tanya Nixx said. Large ones command $150 an hour and can climb into the thousands of dollars.

But consider the removal fees, not to mention the discomfort and inconvenience, should you change your mind, Katz said. "We tell our patients it's a lot more expensive removing them than having them put on."

Removal typically requires six to eight laser treatments, depending how deeply the tattoo has penetrated the skin, he said. The charge, which isn't covered by health insurance, is $400 to $600 per treatment at JUVA Skin, depending on tattoo size. That can mean a total bill of $2,400 to $4,800.

Most people who decide to remove their tattoos are in their 20s through 50s, Katz said. "I had one guy come in because he had his old girlfriend's name tattooed on his bottom and now he has a new girlfriend.

"Usually they have it done in high school or college, get out in the business world and realize it's not appropriate," he said.

Even if customers are initially satisfied, the image's look changes over time, Katz said.

"With aging, a lot of people notice the tattoos become more blurred or bleed into the surrounding skin and become less attractive," he said. "That's another reason they want to have them removed."

Of those in the AAD study with a tattoo, 17 percent were considering having it removed.

Still, many people are undeterred. Those in the market for a tattoo should shop for a business that's licensed and practices strong infection-control measures.

The risks of unsafe needles are many, including hepatitis and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA, a dangerous infection that's resistant to antibiotics.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 44 tattoo recipients developed MRSA after visiting 13 unlicensed tattooists in Ohio, Kentucky and Vermont from June 2004 to August 2005. The CDC said the use of nonsterile equipment and substandard infection-control practices were the likely causes of infection.

Apart from finding a shop that's clean and covers basic health concerns, customers should look for an artist with whom they can relate, said tattoo parlor-owner Nixx.

"The best tattoo is done when the customer gives the artist a basic idea of what they like and lets the artist go," Nixx said. "People try to tell me what colors to use exactly and it never turns out as good as when I [decide] because I do this for a living and they don't."

But what will the boss say?

Employer reactions vary widely, said Amy Maingault, information specialist for SHRM, a trade group of 200,000 human-resource professionals in Alexandria, Va. While many have lightened up about the presence of visible "tats," others may take a conservative stance, especially if the job involves a lot of customer contact, she said.

Still, the market for high-turnover jobs such as baggers and checkers in retail and hospitality can force employers to be more flexible, Maingault said.

"Your front-line employees can be very difficult to recruit," she said. "The job market has put pressure on employers where they simply can't eliminate candidates based on [the presence of tattoos] because there aren't enough candidates to go around. Should the job market change, I could see employers getting more picky about things like that."

Phyllis Hartman, principal and founder of PGHR Consulting in Pittsburgh, said employers are split on the subject.

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