The laser shoots a beam of light that looks like fire and makes a sizzling noise -- Bzzzzzt! -- as it moves across Melissa Morrissette's tattoo. Morrissette winces. She closes her eyes, which are covered by orange goggles, and takes long, slow breaths, fighting the pain. It hurts to get a tattoo removed.
"It's 10 times more painful than getting it put on," she says.
The tattoo is on her left arm -- three ankhs connected in a circle around her biceps. An ankh is a cross topped with a loop, an ancient Egyptian symbol of eternal life. Morrissette, 37, has worn it for seven years. But now she's a real-estate agent working for an Annapolis company that doesn't permit visible tattoos. For a year, she covered it with long sleeves, but this summer she decided to get it removed. That's why she's here in the Laser Center of Maryland in Severna Park, paying $1,700 for six laser treatments that sting and burn.
Waiting to get zapped, her skin numbed by a cream, she remembers the day she got the tattoo, when the guy wielding the needle had a burst of artistic inspiration and decided to add flourishes.
"I could feel him doing something different and I looked and saw these red lines coming out of the ankh," she recalls. "I said, 'What's that?' And he said, 'It's a mystic mist.' I said, 'What does that mean?' To me, it looked like varicose veins."
She had to hire another tattoo artist to cover up those red lines with a reddish-orange cloud.
Now, seven years later, the whole glorious artwork is being blasted away.
"The interesting thing about tattoo removal," says Ross Van Antwerp, the doctor who founded the Laser Center of Maryland, "is that there's always a story behind every tattoo."
Over 16 years, Van Antwerp, 52, has erased thousands of tattoos and heard thousands of tattoo stories -- bizarre stories, hilarious stories, stories that support the recent revelation that human beings are 98 percent genetically identical to the chimpanzee.
"Years ago, I had one homemade tattoo that covered the whole cheek of a woman's buttock and it said, in very crude lettering, Property of Nicky," Van Antwerp says. "This woman was not married to Nicky and, to add insult to injury, the word 'property' was misspelled."
He smiles. "It's a fairly simple word," he says, "but apparently Nicky was a fairly simple guy."
He bursts out laughing.
"I like to talk to my patients," he says. "When they're having a name removed, I ask them, Is this person no longer around? I had a guy some years ago who had the name Colleen on his arm. He said, 'That's my first wife's name, but I've been through three Colleens.' I said, 'Really? Is that a requirement of yours? Do they all have to be named Colleen?' He said, 'No, not at all. Colleen is not that common a name and I think I'm attracting them because I have their name on my arm. And the Colleen thing has never worked for me. That's why I'm here. I have to get this thing off. I have to try something else.' "
Van Antwerp laughs again. He's sitting in his office between patients, wearing dark-blue scrubs. He has removed homemade tattoos, professional tattoos, tribal tattoos, gang tattoos, even jailhouse tattoos made with a safety pin and cigarette ash. He has erased tattoos from every part of the human body surface, even parts you'd think are far too tender to be exposed to a tattoo needle. The phrase "love pump" was tattooed on one guy's . . . well, never mind.
Van Antwerp once erased a naked woman from the arm of a minister of God. "He was a guy who grew up on the streets of Baltimore and went through rough times," he says, "and then he had a religious transformation and became a pastor."
One day, a young woman came in with a Chinese character tattooed on her neck. "She was told it meant 'desert flower,' " Van Antwerp says. "And she was getting a lot of attention from Chinese men. And finally somebody told her that it was a very crude Chinese word for prostitute. Some Chinese tattoo artist was making a joke."
So many tattoos, so many stories. But they all have one thing in common: Somebody made a mistake and now wants to erase it. Like divorce lawyers, revival preachers and parole officers, tattoo removers are in the business of helping people shed the past and start anew.
The second chance -- it's a great American tradition. But sometimes it doesn't work out as planned.
"I had a guy who had a tattoo on his arm and he wanted it off and he'd gone through five treatments," Van Antwerp says. "It was a big tattoo and it was costing him a significant amount of money. Then he went to a business meeting in D.C. and he got out a little early and he hit a happy hour and he's walking down the street and he goes into a tattoo parlor and he walks out with a big black-and-red yin-yang thing in the same spot on his arm.
"He came in the next day, distraught," Van Antwerp continues. "He said, 'It's the worst mistake I ever made.' "
"I said, 'Look, you're a married guy, you've got kids, you have a business. I'm sure there are worse mistakes you could have made. At least this one we can fix.' "
Van Antwerp pauses. His lips curl into an impish grin. "But still, every time I saw him, I'd say, 'I can't wait to see what's coming here next!' ''
And he bursts out laughing again.
The Colors of Money
Tattoo removal is a great growth industry! A fabulous business opportunity!
Look around, my friends. Look at those fresh-faced young people with their backward ball caps and their droopy jeans. Notice the tattoos adorning their slender, tender flesh -- the string of barbed wire around that buff guy's biceps, the little heart on that pretty gal's belly with her boyfriend's name -- Dwayne -- inscribed inside it. Lovely, isn't it?
But some day, my friends, these young people will grow older and fatter and their bodies will sag and they'll look in the mirror and think, Boy, that tattoo looks dumb, and besides, I haven't seen Dwayne since I caught him in bed with . . .
When that day comes, my friends, you will wish you were in the tattoo removal business.
Consider the history: Fifty years ago, tattoos were signs of adventure -- exotic markings found on the arms of sailors and bikers and guys who got them on Cellblock D in exchange for 10 packs of smokes and a homemade shiv.
But in the last 20 years, tattoos have gone mainstream. Now, according to a 2004 Harris Interactive poll, 16 percent of American adults have at least one tattoo, and among 18-to-29-year-olds, the figure is 49 percent.
The same poll revealed that 17 percent of Americans who have tattoos regret getting them.
Those folks are in luck because the science of tattoo removal has climbed out of the Stone Age. Twenty years ago, if you wanted to remove Dwayne's name before you married Harry, you had three choices, none good. You could have Dwayne surgically removed, sliced off with a scalpel. Or you could have him burned off with acid. Or you could sandpaper him off with a process called dermabrasion.
"All these techniques," Van Antwerp says, "traded a scar for a tattoo."
But in the early '90s, dermatologists began using the new short-pulse "Nd:YAG" laser, which can remove tattoos with little or no scarring. But these lasers aren't cheap: They cost about $100,000. And the doctors, nurses and physician's assistants who perform the procedure must be trained and certified.
But if you've got the laser and the license, there's plenty of business. The American Society for Dermatologic Surgery reports that tattoo removal procedures increased by 27 percent from 2001 to 2003. Statistics for 2005 are not complete, but spokeswoman Laura Davis says the society expects another big increase.
Zapping tattoos can be quite profitable. Prices vary, depending on size and color (black and red inks are easier to remove; green and light blue require more treatments). Your average 2-by-2-inch tattoo of "Mom" in a red heart can be erased in six 10-minute sessions for $1,000 to $2,000.
That's roughly 10 times what the same tattoo costs to put on. Which is why tattoo removers tend to be richer than tattoo artists.
"My patients often comment on how much it costs to remove compared to how much it cost to put on," Van Antwerp says, getting that impish grin again. "I tell them that they've stumbled onto one of the truths of the universe: If you take the cost of obtaining a tattoo compared to the cost of removing it, it's almost exactly the same ratio as the cost of a marriage license compared to the cost of a divorce. So I tell them the take-home message is: Think real hard before you get a tattoo or get married."
"They almost all use the same words," says David Green. He's a Bethesda dermatologist and he's talking about the patients who come in to get tattoos removed. "They say, It's the stupidest thing I ever did. This could be St. Patrick's Cathedral and I'm Father Green and they're confessing: Forgive me, Father, this is the stupidest thing I ever did."
Green, 52, is thumbing through photos of tattoos he has obliterated. Doctors who do tattoo removal keep albums of before-and-after pictures to impress prospective patients.
He pauses at a tattooed black panther climbing up a white arm, its claws digging into the shoulder, leaving tattooed drops of bright red blood.
"The woman who had this," Green says, "she's a kindergarten teacher."
He flips to another picture. It shows five crude black lines tattooed across a woman's neck.
"This is a tribal tattoo," he says. "A lot of Ethiopians and Somalis have tribal tattoos."
Three out of four of his clients are women, he says: "I don't know what that means, I don't know whether they have more remorse. Or maybe women are more likely to admit a mistake and get them removed."
Of course, he has plenty of male clients, too. He points to a picture of a hairy male ankle tattooed with the word "bitch."
"He got mad at his girlfriend, so he and his buddies said, 'We'll fix her.' " he says. "That was like 10 years ago and he's married now and he had this ridiculous thing on his foot."
He flips to another male ankle, this one with a bright red heart inscribed with the names Amy, Brittany and Emily.
"Those are his daughters," Green says. "He goes to Myrtle Beach for a golf weekend with his buddies and he comes back and he tells his wife, 'Honey, look, I got the girls' names on -- ' And his wife says, 'You idiot! That's coming off! Get that off and then you can come back in the bedroom!' So when he came in here, it was barely dry."
An Endless Cycle
The laser beam crawls across Melissa Morrissette's ankh tattoo, making that sizzling noise. Then it stops.
"Okay, now we're going to go after the red," says Jessie Mallalieu, a physician's assistant. She pushes a button that changes the color of the laser beam from a white light, which removes black ink, to a green light, which removes red ink.
In less than 10 minutes, Mallalieu is done.
"I'm glad it's over," Morrissette says. "It kind of feels like you're on fire."
Mallalieu swabs the raw, reddened tattoo with a numbing cream, then wraps it in gauze.
"At work," Morrissette says, "I'm telling everybody, 'Please don't get yourself tattooed any place visible because you're gonna hate 'em and it hurts when you get 'em removed.' "
After Morrissette leaves, Mallalieu tidies up, preparing for the next patient. At 25, she has been removing tattoos for only a year, but she already has stories to tell.
"I had a man come in and say, 'I woke up with this tattoo. I went to a party and ended up with a tattoo, and I had no idea till I woke up the next morning.' "
What kind of tattoo was it?
She laughs. "It was a Playboy bunny."
Bethesda dermatologist David Green with a tattoo-removing laser. The color of the ink in the tattoo determines which light is used to erase it.
Before-and-after photos from the album of Bethesda dermatologist David Green. "They almost all use the same words," he says of tattoo patients. "They say, 'It's the stupidest thing I ever did.' "
Melissa Morrissette checks out her ever-fading tattoo after another laser treatment, one of six it will take to remove it. "It's 10 times more painful than getting it put on," she says.