April 2015

The Nation Reviewed

Delible ink

By Alice Pung
Even tattoos don’t last forever any more

Buddhists believe that everything is impermanent, so it’s ironic to see this sort of wisdom tattooed on someone’s bicep or back. Quite a few people who get tattoos when they are young are under the influence of the “end of history illusion”, a term coined by a team of Harvard psychologists to describe how people often fail to appreciate how much their tastes and opinions will continue to change. One man who understands this phenomenon very well is Paul Georgos, a Melbourne optometrist who started his own tattoo removal business, Doff & Flux, four years ago.

Georgos gave his business its name because “doff” means to remove or tip and “flux” means continuous change. Doff & Flux shares the third floor of a laneway office building in the city with an acupuncturist, a Japanese eyelash extension clinic and a pregnancy massage parlour. The clinic is very white, very clean and Zen-like: there’s a bed at one end and a desk at the other, and not much else aside from a laser and a cooling machine. Georgos is friendly, clean-cut and strikingly well groomed, with the sort of face you’d imagine the dentist in those old Oral B ads would have had if he’d turned around.

For more than 20 years as an optometrist, Georgos was fascinated by the technology of laser vision correction. Five years ago, he was approached to give laser demonstrations for tattoo removal, and that’s when he realised that there was an enormous market due to technological advances that went beyond the old-fashioned skin-graft approach.

He explains that the upper layer of skin is left intact in laser tattoo removal, contrary to the popular belief that the tattoo is burnt off. “All the action happens beneath the skin surface, deep in the dermis.” The ink particles of the tattoo are too chunky for the body to move, so the laser shatters them beneath the skin to create finer particles, which are then flushed out through the body’s lymphatic system. “When the ink particle is shattered, gas and moisture are produced, creating a micro-split in the skin – hence the discomfort. But it is not enough to break the surface.”

“Does tattoo removal hurt?” I ask.

“Yes! Of course it hurts. We use ice before and after, and the cooling machine during treatment, to minimise discomfort. We also sell a lot of high-strength numbing gel. But in the end, you will feel something.”

At 5.30, a young woman in a business shirt walks in for her fifth session. Most of Georgos’ clients are women like Melina, office workers who followed a fad by getting something small on their wrist or ankle that has now gone out of vogue – a butterfly, a dove, some stars – or opted for a lower back decoration before it became known as a “tramp stamp”. More commonly, they are removing the name of a former flame. Men will often have tribal tattoos removed from their biceps. In the ’90s, these thick lines were popular, but now they just seem so … ’90s. It is estimated that 22% of Australian men and 29% of women in their 20s have at least one tattoo. Thirty-four per cent of Australians who have a tattoo regret getting it, and one in seven of this group are considering removal.

Melina takes off her shoes and lies flat on her stomach on the bed. Georgos hands us each a pair of sunglasses, puts on a pair of gloves and gets out his iPad. “I like to take a ‘before’ and ‘after’ picture of each session,” he tells me, as Melina lifts up the back of her shirt. Then he ices the area on Melina’s back where she has an already-faded tattoo of a phrase in Latin, and switches on the Koolio cooling machine, which blows a continuous stream of icy air onto Melina’s skin.

Georgos then wheels over the laser, which is a solid white box with a bendable arm attachment. He holds the arm over Melina’s back, switches on the laser and runs the arm across the black Old English–type letters. The laser pulses ten times a second and colours explode from its tip: red, green, yellow. The microscopic firework emits sounds like a stove lighter or low-key firecrackers from a distance. Melina flinches, but the whole process takes less than a minute.

When Georgos is finished, he puts cream and a plaster over the area. “Ooh, I can feel it deep in my skin,” Melina groans when she sits up. Georgos tells her to ice it when she gets home.

Melina tells me about her tattoo. “It’s covered up. No one else can see it except me. But I don’t like knowing that it’s there. It doesn’t suit my identity any more.”

After Melina leaves, I ask Georgos about the age of his oldest client, and he tells me that he treated a man in his 70s. There was also a man who tattooed the top of his head in his 20s, believing that hair would always cover it, but was now going bald in middle age. I wonder if older skin poses different challenges, but Georgos tells me that it isn’t the age of the skin but its colour.

“If you are white – red-headed, burning-in-the-sun, fair-skinned white – that’s the best type of skin for tattoo removal, because the laser only reacts with the ink. But if you have darker skin, the laser can react with your pigmentation. That’s why we are more careful with, say, Asian skin.”

Georgos shows me a series of photographs in which a tattoo of a phoenix gradually fades on the back of an Asian woman’s neck. “Darker-skinned people must start off with less energy from the laser.” He tells me about a Sudanese woman who came to him because her previous tattoo removalist removed her skin pigment along with the tattoo.

While Georgos has specialised training with lasers, he tells me that mechanics, bakers and teenage beauticians are now getting into the lucrative trade. Georgos’ medical-grade, Q-switched Fotona laser cost $100,000, but he says that you can buy $20,000 Chinese lasers these days. While doctors who remove tattoos are required to be trained and insured, beauticians and new operators are entirely unregulated everywhere but Western Australia and Queensland. “In Victoria,” Georgos explains, “you can do a two-day tattoo removal course and be good to go. You can also complete a laser safety officer’s qualification course online, if you choose to.”

Some patients can get terribly burnt by unqualified tattoo removalists, and they might not receive any compensation from insurance because the treatment was not carried out by medical professionals.

I ask Georgos to tell me about the strangest request he has ever had.

“I saw a guy who went to Bali with a bunch of his mates. He came back with a massive dragon tattooed across his stomach. The tail of the dragon was … well, you can imagine, hanging down there.”

Apparently his wife was not too pleased, and she made him get it removed.

Even the laser tattoo-removal industry may not last forever. A Canadian PhD student, Alec Falkenham, recently announced he is developing a topical cream that will remove tattoos by activating the skin’s macrophage cells to target only inked areas. This would be of enormous comfort to those with tattoos in sensitive spots. However, as the cream is still in its early testing phase, Falkenham doesn’t yet know how many applications will be required. In the meantime, the Guy with the Dragon Tattoo will just have to grit his teeth and endure the crackle of the laser. 

Alice Pung

Alice Pung is a writer, lawyer and teacher. She is the author of Unpolished Gem, Her Father’s Daughter, Laurinda and Writers on Writers: Alice Pung on John Marsden.

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