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Some Illinoisans taking off tattoos

Physician's assistant Brittany Zimmerman uses a laser to remove a tattoo on Chelsea Robertson's wrist May 30, 2013, at Hartsough Dermatology in Rockford. Robertson, a cosmetic consultant at Hartsough, has joined what a trade group says is growing numbers of people trying to undo what once seemed a good idea. (AP Photo/Rockford Register Star, Amy J. Correnti)

ROCKFORD (AP) — The ink ran, the word blurred. It was the frowning achievement of an amateur artist, and Chelsea Robertson doesn't want the tattoo anymore.

"It's supposed to say 'smile' but was done in not the best choice in fonts and it bled together," said Robertson, 23, who offered her teenage wrist as both canvas and Guinea pig to a friend and budding tattoo artist.

"People couldn't read it."

Editing her wrist with a laser has begun. She's six treatments in, and it may take a half dozen or more sessions at Hartsough Dermatology to rid her of the ink that triggered tattoo regret.

Robertson, a cosmetic consultant at Hartsough, has joined what a trade group says is growing numbers of people trying to undo what once seemed a good idea.

Gallup says 21 percent of adults admitted last year they have a tattoo, up from 14 percent in 2008.

The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery estimates that nationally, more than 58,000 people last year spent a combined $16.5 million on laser tattoo treatments. As many as a third of those people had tattoo regret, according to a CNN report.

The organization, which based its estimates on a sample survey of doctors, said the average cost of treatment was $282, and because it is considered cosmetic surgery, insurance may not pay.

A typical tattoo removal takes three or four laser treatments, spaced a month or two apart, the organization said.

More elaborate tattoos require more treatments that drive up the cost. Hartsough charges $50 per square inch per treatment. That's about the size of a postage stamp.

"Most tattoos cost five to six times more to remove that it cost to put on," said Brittany Zimmerman, a physician's assistant at Hartsough who works on up to 15 patients a week who no longer want their body art.

"But a $50 tattoo can cost $600 to remove."

Complex tattoos may take 15 laser treatments, driving the cost of removal into the thousands to erase inky impulses, heartbreak or immature transgressions. In some cases, the person is clearing skin space to get a new tattoo, she said.

In the old days, removing a tattoo meant sanding the skin or roughing it with a diamond and letting it heal, or removing the tattoo surgically and covering it up with a skin graft, Zimmerman said.

Surgery seemed to be the only option for Hank Vogel, 70, of Loves Park, for the spider that over the years devolved into a blue blob on his wrist.

"I was 21-years-old," the retired ComEd worker said. "I was out drinking with my buddy. We were drinking, drinking and drinking, and said, 'We're best friends, we ought to get a tattoo.'

"Well, your brain really isn't developed until you're 25 anyway."

Vogel thought getting the spider laser-treated would cost $3,000. Instead, he's had his fourth $75 laser session, with several more to go. He should get out of the tattoo for substantially less than he thought.

"It's getting a lot lighter," he said of the tattoo.

Lasers use different light wavelengths to attack various ink colors. Lasers use different light wavelengths to attack various ink colors. The light pulses shatter tattoo ink into tiny particles, which are absorbed by the body.

Some colors — black, red, orange — are easier to laser away than blues, greens and yellows, Zimmerman said.

Laser removal hurts about as much as getting the tattoo, said Robertson, who is also getting a Virgo sign removed from her ankle. She has a family crest and other personal tattoos on her back that have meaning. They're easily covered with clothing.

Tattoos on arms, necks or faces that can't be covered up don't play well in job interviews. That's one reason people seek removal. Former gang members often want their ink erased. The military is getting tough on tattoos, too.

"We hear everything, from Marines who just don't remember, to people who came in and say 'I had this done last weekend in Las Vegas,'" said Dr. Tolbert Wilkinson, a San Antonio plastic surgeon who helped found 12 clinics in Texas in the mid-1990s to provide tattoo removal for people who couldn't afford laser treatments.

Wilkinson says Tattoo Obliteration By Intense Light is cheaper and faster than lasers, which require the purchase of a machine that can cost more than $100,000, a clinic to put it in and annual maintenance costs.

Wilkinson says his system costs about $15,000 and is being used in more than a dozen states and six countries, though not in the Rockford area yet. He's trained everyone from physicians to church ladies to use the equipment, which concentrates white light to shatter tattoo ink.

He recommends that groups have a active or retired doctor on site to monitor treatment.

"Any group can start one, but I say everybody should have a medical director to treat allergies or in the rare event of an infection," Wilkinson said. "We minimize cost, so any doctor or church or Rotarian could set up their own program and run it."

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