Health Care, Human Resources, and Technology

Far cheaper to get than to get rid of

The cost of tattoo removal stops some from having the procedure.

August 22, 2014
| By Pete Daly |
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Dr. Marguerite Aitken of Plastic Surgery Associates expects an uptick in tattoo removal in the coming years. Courtesy Plastic Surgery Associates

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) There is definitely a growing market for tattoo removal — but no insurance covers it and removing one costs far more than getting it in the first place because of the expensive laser equipment involved, so tattoo removal businesses are still scarce in West Michigan.

According to 2010 survey data compiled by the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., more than 20 percent of all Americans have a tattoo, and that increases to 32 percent for people age 30 to 45.

Marguerite E. Aitken, an M.D., board certified plastic surgeon at Plastic Surgery Associates in downtown Grand Rapids, said her practice is one of the few tattoo removal businesses in the area, but adds, “We have not seen an uptick in this end of the business yet. My expectation is that we will down the road.”

With all the people getting tattoos, she said, “there is a lot of people who are going to be unhappy at some point.”

A quick check on the Internet reveals just three tattoo removal businesses in West Michigan — two in Grand Rapids and one in Grand Haven — and the Michigan Center for Cosmetic Surgery in Ann Arbor.

Tattoo removal is a small part of the business at Plastic Surgery Associates, which has its surgery practice and offices on two floors of the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel. The practice uses a Medlite Q-switched Nd: YAG laser for removing tattoos, which can apply various wavelengths of laser beams for removal of a range of colors in the tattoo.

The lasers were not developed specifically for tattoo removal but as medical lasers for cosmetic purposes. Ironically, tattoo artists are employed by plastic surgery clinics to add skin coloring around the nipple in breast reconstruction following mastectomies.

Aitken said professionally applied tattoos place ink deeper below the skin and more of it, “and are more difficult to remove than some of the amateur tattoos that we see.”

The laser breaks down the inks, causing the body to gradually absorb them. Some colors of ink are more difficult to remove, but she said a typical case could require eight to 10 laser sessions, and she prefers to wait at least six weeks between each session. The Plastic Surgery Associates website states that its laser tattoo removal prices start at $290 per session and go up to $475, depending on the size of the tattoo.

The cost is less at tattoo removal clinics operated by an individual who is a certified laser technician, but even that cost is far more than the cost of getting a tattoo.

One such clinic is the Grand Rapids Tattoo Removal & Skin Clinic at 515 Michigan St. NE on the Medical Mile in downtown Grand Rapids. Anthony Neilly, who founded the business two years ago, has invested in a Q-switch laser he said is designed specifically for tattoo removal. The cost of such a machine is about $110,000, according to Neilly.

Neilly said his business has been good and that he is removing “thousands” of tattoos in a year.

“It’s predicted to increase quite a bit within the next five years because they’re putting the tattoos on faster than we can take them off,” said Neilly.

Margaret Brookman, the owner of Grand Haven Laser Tattoo Removal, has a one-person shop like Neilly, and she also has a doctor involved with the business, per state law. She, too, is a certified laser technician. Brookman, 35, said hers is the only tattoo removal office in Grand Haven.

“I would say it’s growing at a very good rate,” she replied, when asked how her business was doing. “I have customers who drive down from Traverse City and drive up from Chicago, even,” she said.

She charges about $80 for a laser session to remove a tattoo 1-by-1-inch in size. Complete removal of a larger tattoo can require from five to 15 laser sessions.

As her website notes, most tattoos can be removed completely, but sometimes that is much harder to achieve because tattoo inks are not regulated by the FDA, and some tattoo artists mix their own.

“Sometimes these mixes have metals and other foreign additives for effect. These unknowns are why 100 percent removal is hard to predict and cannot be guaranteed,” states her website.

A tattoo with ink that has iron oxide in it, in particular, is much more difficult to erase, according to Neilly, because the laser will cause it to turn black. In some cases, he will not attempt to remove those tattoos.

Brookman started her business three years ago after seeking to have her own tattoo removed and being struck by the cost she was asked to pay.

“Some people can’t afford to pay $300, $400, $500 per treatment. A lot of people can’t,” said Brookman.

Neilly said a lot of people want their tattoo removed, “but there’s just no money at all” for that. “We do give military discounts,” he said. “We’ll work with anybody, with the finances.”

He said he removes most tattoos for $60 to $150 per treatment, “and even cheaper with package pricing. We offer flexible and competitive pricing to match anyone’s budget.”

Neilly said he uses a method that allows him to perform three or four laser treatments on a tattoo during one extended visit. Most of his clients range in age from early 20s to mid 40s and are people who “just regret it” and now want a tattoo removed. He said he is aware of an individual who had a tattoo applied on a Friday and came to him the following Monday to have it removed.

Others are individuals who are about to become new parents, he said. Some may have particularly large and frightening tattoos and they don’t want to have to try to explain to their children what it means.

The U.S. Army recently announced stricter rules against service personnel being excessively tattooed; some existing tattoos may be grandfathered but new ones must meet much stricter rules on size and location on the body.

Neilly said some former service personnel who want to re-enlist have come to him for removal of tattoos. One such individual had his entire arm tattooed at a party, and Neilly said he could probably remove it for $2,500 to $3,000, but that individual “has no money so he hasn’t decided yet.”

Jim Milan, a test technician at an automotive parts manufacturing company, had a 3-by-5-inch tiger head tattooed on his bicep in 1983 when he was about 23. It cost him about $75. Last year, the Warren resident completed 18 months of monthly laser treatments at a plastic surgery clinic to have it removed, at a cost of $99 per treatment — until near the end of the process when the clinic got a new, more effective laser and more than doubled the price for each treatment.

“I couldn’t believe how much it hurt,” he said, referring to his first treatment, but after demanding a momentary halt, he gritted his teeth and went on with it. Each subsequent treatment was less painful, he said. Payments were made at each treatment, helping make the overall cost less painful, too.

Milan said he got the tiger tattoo “spur of the moment, and I regretted it.” Over the years, whenever he saw it, he thought “it really wasn’t me.” He is a family man with a wife and daughters.

Neilly said there is a “stigma attached to tattoos,” which is “one of the reasons why people want to get rid of them.”

He said he paid hundreds of dollars for a large, professionally made sign to put outside his business advertising tattoo removal, and he was then told he could not put it up because “it brings down the image of the building.”

“I’m not even putting tattoos on; I’m taking them off,” he said.

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