Johnny Gazel had regrets before the ink set on the tattoo on his thigh.
"I knew it was a mistake the minute I saw it," says Gazel, 21, of the crude Chinese symbol created by a friend when he was 16. "The things you do when you're young. I'm not a tattoo person, and every time I look at it, I know it was a mistake. It's supposed to mean 'help' in Chinese, but who knows; it could say jerk."
On his 21st birthday, Gazel turned to Tampa Laser Touch in Westchase to have the tattoo erased.
Robert Miles, the center's medical director, is using a Q-switched laser to gradually wipe out the mark.
The process is painful, expensive and time-consuming, but despite the drawbacks, business is booming. Although there are no hard statistics on tattoo removal, Rita Kruse, a certified instructor in laser and electrolysis, says laser tattoo removals have more than doubled in the past few months.
"We're seeing more people who want their tattoos removed and more doctors who want to be trained in tattoo removal," says Kruse, of the Electrolysis Institute of Tampa, a training center adjacent to the laser center. "As the economy worsens and more people are looking for work, they don't want a visible tattoo. They feel it could hurt their chances of finding a good job."
Others are barred from military service because of multiple tattoos.
But the most frequent candidates are those with tattoos with the names of old boyfriends or former spouses, Kruse says.
People who get a tattoo on impulse, while intoxicated or to please someone else are the most likely to want it removed.
Gracie DeJesus, 31, decided to have her regretted tattoo artfully disguised. As a teenager, she had an amateur tattoo of a heart stamped on her calf. She later had it turned into a sprawling daisy.
"I didn't immediately regret it, but it didn't take long," says DeJesus, a mother of two. "You do some things when you're young without thinking how you'll feel about it when you're older."
A few years down maturity lane, DeJesus had the daisy removed with a laser treatment, but she isn't altogether happy with the results. You can still see remnants of the tattoo on her skin.
"I guess it's a reminder of something I never should have done," she says.
Not all tattoos are created equal; the quality of the ink can affect how easy or difficult they are to erase. Indian ink is the easiest to remove, and prison tattoos - usually made with unconventional tools such as pen cartridges and even cigarette ashes - also are less difficult.
The Q-switched laser targets the pigment in the tattoo. The laser light goes through the skin without damaging it and hits the pigment, breaking it into particles. The ink is then absorbed by the body, through the lymphatic system, and flushed out.
Laser removal works best on black and blue tattoos, homemade tattoos and ones less than eight years old, Miles says. Certain colors, such as orange, yellow and turquoise, are harder to remove, he adds. The location of the tattoo is also a factor. Those on boney areas of the body, such as the ankles and wrists, take longer to remove, while tattoos on the shoulders, thighs, buttocks and chest respond best.
The number of treatments needed depends on the tattoo size and number of colors. Almost every kind of tattoo requires more than one session.
"Everyone is different," Miles says. "The laser has removed the tattoo, but the body also has to do its part to help flush it out."
Although prices vary, the average cost of removal at Tampa Laser Touch is $100 per square inch. Since it is considered a cosmetic procedure, insurance doesn't cover it.
Reporter Cloe Cabrera can be reached at (813) 259-7656.
REMOVAL IS A PAIN
The smell of burning hair rises up and fills the room at Tampa Laser Touch in Westchase as Dr. Robert Miles works to destroy the pigment buried in Johnny Gazel's skin.
There's a quick snapping sound each time pulses of light from the Q-switched laser move over Gazel's thigh. Gazel grits his teeth and winces in pain.
"God," he groans. "This hurts more than getting the tattoo."
The pain becomes so intense, an ice pack is placed on his thigh to numb the area. After several minutes, Gazel seems more relaxed.
"I don't feel a thing now," he says. "I should have gotten the ice a lot sooner."
Each time the laser hits a spot, a light frosting appears over the ink, the tattoo scabs a bit and then begins to fade.
The whole process takes about 20 minutes. Miles applies an antibiotic ointment over the area, covers it and instructs Gazel to return in four weeks to have the tattoo assessed. Keeping the area out of the sun during the weeks of healing can help avoid complications.
Miles expects Gazel's tattoo to be gone in about three treatments.
"This was my first and last tattoo," Gazel says. "I will never go through this again."