Metro Weekly

Stuck On You

Removing an unwanted tattoo is neither easy nor cheap

Maybe, before you came out of the closet, you got a tattoo to signify your eternal love for Heather, your date to the prom. Maybe you waited until you were a true-blue gay man to honor Madonna instead. Or maybe you got the gay man’s equivalent of a gang symbol, the tribal tattoo.

If you’ve soured on your sentiments and loyalty – and since the relationship obviously didn’t take off – what can you do? Can you remove the tattoo?

Generally speaking, yes. But it won’t be easy or cheap, and there can be complications. Just as you shouldn’t have rushed into getting a tattoo, you can’t rush into removing it.

Tattoo removal is considerably more expensive than tattoo application. Depending on your skin type and the tattoo color, removal requires anywhere from five to 10 treatments, costing some $150 each, according to dermatologist Dr. Howard Brooks of SKIN of Georgetown. It’s also far more painful, even with the use of numbing cream.

”It’s very uncomfortable,” says Brooks. ”It feels like I’m snapping you pretty hard with a rubber band. It hurts more to get rid of a tattoo than to get one.”

As a dermatologist, Brooks is quick to warn against getting a tattoo in the first place. The federal government still does not regulate the practice, from the dyes and pigments to the equipment used in application and removal. And there is no specific license for practitioners.

These days, an estimated 10 million Americans have tattoos and having them is no longer taboo, having mostly shed the prison and gang connotations. But the increasing popularity of tattoos has led to increasing demand for removal. Some data indicates that slightly more than half of all people with tattoos eventually regret them. Count Brooks among them.

”I wish I didn’t have them,” he says of his three tattoos. But he’s opted to live with them. Besides the pain and expense, there is no guarantee the tattoo can be completely removed, even in the best of hands and using the right lasers. Lasers are used to cause a reaction that breaks down the tattoo ink and speeds up the normal aging process. As a result, the tattoo’s pigment disperses and the original image is blurred.

But especially for people with darker skin tones, explains Brooks, himself African American, the removal process can end up reversing the tattoo, or creating a ”ghost tattoo.” Removal can also leave scars. Even with an experienced practitioner such as Brooks, who says he’s removed hundreds of tattoos in eight years of practice, ”there’s always a risk of infection.”

Brooks has no confidence in alternatives to laser removal, which over the past decade has become the standard. ”They’re not good, essentially,” he says of the advertised wrecking balls, or even earlier procedures such as abrasions, which literally scrape off the top layer of skin and any tattoos along with it.

An alternative to actual removal is getting what’s called a cover-up – basically, imposing another tattoo on top of the original, covering it up. It doesn’t always work – it depends on the color and nature of the original tattoo, and of course, the experience of the tattoo practitioner.

So think carefully before taking your next step. And certainly, don’t rush into it a second time. Your love for Brandon – or Beyonce – may not last forever. And then you’ll be really stuck.

For a consultation regarding tattoo removal, contact Dr. Brooks at SKIN of Georgetown, 2233 Wisconsin Ave. NW. Call 202-298-7546 or visit

Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly.