At 15, Morris Oliver and his best friend thought they had their lives mapped out as tattoo artists.
Several practice sessions later, Morris sported a crudely drawn image of the world with a hawk, moon and stars on his left hand.
As a teen., “I thought it was great, but my dad wanted to kick my butt, you know, and my mother wanted to run me out of the house,” said Oliver, 55, a retired steel worker who lives in Tucker.
Back then, though, “you couldn’t have told me nothing.”
Today, Oliver hopes to erase all remnants of that youthful indiscretion. He’s undergoing several laser treatments to have his tattoos, including one of his wife’s name that he added years later on his right bicep, removed.
Experts say there’s been a boon in the number of people getting tattoos, partly because of greater acceptance of body art and the popularity of reality TV programs showcasing tattoo artists.
Consequently, there’s been a growth in the number of tattoo removals.
“Each time a celebrity gets a tattoo removed, we get more calls,” said Michele Salazar, a laser specialist at Atlanta Dermatology and Laser Surgery in Atlanta.
Among the latest is supermodel Heidi Klum, who is in the process of removing a tattoo that she had done in celebration of her fourth wedding anniversary to ex-hubby Seal. And people are wondering what celebrity Amber Rose will do with that massive arm tattoo of ex-beau Wiz Khalifa’s face now that the couple are divorcing.
The number of tattoo removals – 96,000 – in 2013 was a 52 percent increase over the previous year, according to a survey by the Illinois-based American Society of Dermatological Surgery.
The industry “certainly isn’t shrinking,” said Dr. Will Kirby, a leading expert in laser tattoo removal and co-owner of Los Angeles-based Dr. Tattoff laser removal clinics, which recently opened an office in Atlanta.
Atlanta, he said, is a major metro area with a “vibrant young community and you have a lot of tattoos there.”
There’s “no right or wrong” why people get tattoos removed. “Everybody has regrets in life and this is one you can go back and change,” Kirby said. ” It’s not so much about removal but renewal.
Oliver, for instance, simply didn’t want the tattoos any longer. He said he used to turn his hand so the tattoo was hidden.
“I wanted to restore my body to the way the good Lord gave it to me and I didn’t know what that ink was doing to my body.”
During a recent session at Atlanta Dermatology and Laser Surgery, Oliver donned protective goggles and lay on a table as Salazar used a Q-switch laser to slowly blast away the markings. Different wavelengths are used for specific colors.
There’s a popping sound as the laser hits the ink, exploding it into little pieces, which will either crust and scab and be eliminated by the body.
A local anesthesia is used although other clinics use a combination of a local and topical anesthetic.
Love fades, but body art remains, she said. The names and likenesses of exes and old flames are often the first to go.
Other reasons include concerns that tattoos will hinder job prospects; poorly done tattoos, people simply deciding less ink is better and, lately, the military.
The U.S. Army, for instance, which recently tightened its regulations regarding the number, size and location of tattoos.
The new Army policies, for example, ban tattoos on the head, neck, face, fingers and wrists; prohibit full sleeve tattoos; and allow no more than four hand-size tattoos below the elbows and knees.
Salazar, who is tattoo free, has seen it all.
One man had his social security number tattooed on the side of his head for the world and any scam artist to see. Another had “the happy Mexican” in Spanish tattooed on his forehead.
A woman had a Playboy bunny and the words “Lucky You” tattooed at her bikini line, but childbirth had distorted the image so the words looked more like “uck you.”
In darker patients, Salazer performs a skin test to make sure the pigment doesn’t become too dark or light.
“We have to find that balance,” she said. The test gives a good indication what people can expect during treatment.
Most people require multiple treatments, spaced six weeks apart, to remove the tattoo. Some fade completely, depending on several factors including the color ink used. Professional-grade ink generally takes between six and 10 sessions to remove. Gang or prison tattoos, which may use lower quality ink or a substance used in place of ink or lower quality ink takes fewer treatments.
Blues and greens are more difficult to remove than blacks and reds.
Prices can range from $175 a treatment to more than $200, depending on size and other factors.
Some referrals come from unlikely places - tattoo shops.
Russ Abbott, owner of Ink & Dagger Tattoo in Roswell, said he’s referred people to removal clinics.
People have walked in the door with poorly done tattoos. “These are people who most likely have not done their research about tattoos, jumped in head first and gotten tattoos by the first person they see with a needle,” he said. “The public doesn’t understand yet the range of ability that exist in the tattoo community.”
Indeed, while the government has health regulations about tattoo parlors, it doesn’t control the artistry.
Abbott said he has had tattoos lightened with laser “in order to go back and get a new tattoo.”
If people don’t want to use a laser to remove a tattoo, artists like Abbott can cover the old tattoo with a new one.
“It doesn’t bother me when people want to get a tattoo removed,” he said. “I think it’s just them trying to work toward a better image of themselves. It takes a huge commitment to get one and its takes just a much of a commitment to get rid of them. It’s not for everybody.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.