Newer technology allows people who are unhappy with their tattoos to get them removed faster. Bad news: It still hurts.
Tattoos can be treasured marks of love, eye-catching designs or meaningful artistic expressions. But when a job interview comes around, a couple break up or another year passes, they can become permanent and regrettable stains in the skin.
A Harris poll this year found that 21 percent of American adults had a tattoo, up from 16 percent in 2003 and 14 percent in 2008. But as tattoos have grown in popularity, more inked Americans are trying to undo what were meant to be permanent additions to their bodies. There were 32 percent more tattoo removals in 2012 than in 2011, according to a study by the Patient's Guide, an online grouping of small medical publications.
"These violent delights have violent ends," read words scrolled around two flowers in a tattoo on Tina Garrubba's chest. She got the flowers when she was 15 and added the words, a quotation from "Romeo and Juliet," when she was 18.
But now Garrubba, 22, a senior at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, is preparing for graduate school and a career in psychology.
"I don't think anyone would hire me because of that," she said, referring to the tattoo. "I don't really like it anymore."
Garrubba's case illustrates two of the most common reasons for tattoo removal: improving employment prospects and growing tired of having one. Erasing the mark of an ended relationship is another major reason.
"Mostly it's people that have somebody's name on their body that they're no longer with or they have a really common tattoo and they're over it," said Bridget Miller, owner of East Side Laser Center in Pittsburgh, which removes tattoos.
Miller said her business has seen about a 20 percent rise in tattoo removals in the past year. Dolphins, roses and fraternity or sorority emblems are among the designs most frequently removed.
Blair Shaffer, who oversees treatment at the Aesthetic Skin and Laser Center in Pittsburgh, estimated a 50 percent increase in the center's tattoo removals in the past few years, which she attributes to more people getting tattoos in the first place: "It's hard to even think of friends that don't have a tattoo at this point."
A study presented in July at the British Association of Dermatologists found nearly a third of Brits with tattoos regretted getting one.
Removing a regretted tattoo is a long, painful and expensive process.
It involves laser light, which breaks down ink in the tattoo. The body eventually flushes it out through the lymphatic system.
There is wide variation in treatment time, depending on the tattoo's size, its color and its type of ink. Different colors and types of ink respond differently to different lasers. Removing a tattoo just 2 inches across usually costs around $200 for each of six to 12 treatments. About four weeks of healing is needed between each.
About 20 years ago, the lasers used in tattoo removal improved from pulsing every millisecond, which causes scarring around the tattoo, to pulsing every nanosecond, which allows for a more targeted treatment that avoids scarring.
"The lasers are dramatically better than they were five or 10 years ago," said Eric Bernstein, a clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania. Some treatments that took six to 10 sessions now take four to eight.
'Very fast bee stings'
Lasers now being tested can remove tattoos in a single day, with four treatments just 20 minutes apart. The problem is not having enough recovery time.
"Most people can barely get through the first treatment, let alone sitting there waiting for the next treatment," Miller said.
"It's like multiple very fast bee stings or simultaneously getting a rubber band snapped on your neck hundreds of times," said Marie Moisant, 37, of Mount Lebanon, Pa.
She's having a Star of David on her neck removed because she is joining the military as a chaplain. Its policy bans tattoos on the neck or face.
Moisant, a nondenominational Christian, had tired of the tattoo anyway. "I had noticed over time, especially where there's a larger Jewish population, that people were sometimes offended by it," she said, adding she'll keep the proverb on her arm, butterfly on her back and rose on her heel.
Garrubba is also keeping seven other tattoos after removing the "Romeo and Juliet" quotation.
"I would maybe consider getting another tattoo," she said. "Just not someplace so noticeable."