At 29, Ryan Adams enjoys a good deal of prestige as coordinator of post production for Hearst Entertainment Productions, a creator of made-for-TV movies and miniseries based in West Los Angeles. Other than his youth, there's just one thing that makes Adams stand out from other entertainment executives he works with each day: the Japanese symbols he has tattooed across each of his fingers.
"I'm meeting with presidents of companies. I'm in a good position for such a young age," he said. "I don't like to advertise how young I am, and when you have tattoos across your knuckles, it's pretty obvious."
Adams is about to undergo a series of laser treatments to remove the body art. He's one of what appears to be a growing number of young professionals and others who are beginning to look at those born-to-be-wild tattoos as a barrier to advancement.
"There's been an exponential increase in tattoos over the last 10 years," said Lisa Walker, a sales manager for Coherent Inc., a maker of medical lasers. "Now as young people on a career path try to leap to the next level, they're finding their tattoos are a very obvious visual barrier."
Statistics documenting the trend aren't available, but Los Angeles-area doctors say anecdotal evidence suggests more people, especially Gen-Xers, are looking to remove unsightly tattoos.
"We used to do maybe three (removals of) tattoos a month, now we're doing 20 to 30 a month and that's without advertising," said Dr. Tim Cannis, a partner at the California Laser Medical Center in Westlake Village.
Dr. Brian Dubow, a cosmetic surgeon who practices in West Los Angeles, said he too has seen an increase in tattoo-removal cases. "We're seeing a mix of mostly younger people in their 20s and 30s who exercised bad judgment by having tattoos placed," he said. "Now they want them off."
The trend is one of the more telling results of an apparent shift in mentality among Generation X. Known in the early 1990s as the "slacker" generation, people in their 20s and 30s are suddenly finding themselves hot commodities, with their computer skills highly in demand during a time of record low unemployment. As they enter the professional world, they often find that the tattoos they got during their slacker period don't play well in the workplace.
Of course, tattoo removal isn't reserved for Generation X. Plenty of older people are rethinking the body art they applied during their youths.
Ken Riek, a 44-year-old emergency-room nurse at Northridge Medical Center, has been undergoing a series of treatments at Cannis' clinic to remove a seven-inch-tall skull with wings he had tattooed on his forearm during his motorcycle days.
"I was 18. I went in for something non-conspicuous, and by the time I got done it just grew," he said. "I chose to get rid of it because I think it looks unprofessional. I have to wear long-sleeved shirts at work, and I don't even like to go to the beach without keeping it covered."
Riek looked into getting rid of the tattoo years ago, but found the technology to be lacking, to say the least. "They used to cut them out or sandpaper them off, use skin grafts, all kinds of gross things," he said.
How it's done
During a recent visit to Cannis' Westlake Village office, patient Charmine Navarro pulled down the band of her sweatpants to reveal what used to be a poor imitation of "Tigger," the cartoon character from "Winnie the Pooh."
"I hated it, mainly because it just didn't look like Tigger," she said. Navarro had already undergone several treatments, and the cartoon creature looked like a faded outline.
Peering at the tattoo from behind safety glasses, the doctor went to work with his $350,000 pulse laser, blasting away at the ink with high-intensity bursts of light.
The first-generation lasers, said Cannis, worked in continuous beams, often burning and scarring the patient's skin. The new laser pulse, in billionth-of-a-second bursts, granulizes the ink without damaging the skin.
As he blasted away at Navarro's tattoo, the ink made a popping sound like grease sizzling in a pan. "A couple more treatments and it'll be gone," he said.
After 15 minutes, Navarro was through for the day. The area of the tattoo will look sunburned and feel bruised for a couple of days. After six to eight weeks, Navarro's body will flush out the ink granules, and she'll be ready for her last visits.
Cannis charges about $100 per treatment to remove smaller, single-color tattoos and up to $500 per treatment to remove larger, multicolored body art. A small tattoo can be removed in one or two treatments, while the larger ones may require as many as eight visits.
But with an estimated 20 million Americans sporting tattoos, Cannis believes tattoo removal will become an increasingly important part of his practice.
"I expect we're going to see a lot more people wanting to get rid of their tattoos," he said. "For a lot of people, tattoos represent a period of their lives they're really embarrassed about and would like to forget."
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