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And scientists at Harvard are giving the ancient art of tattooing a technological makeover. They've invented a tattoo ink that challenges the very idea that a tattoo is something permanent.

From member station KWMU in St. Louis, Robert Frederick reports the inventors say the new ink is safe and much easier to remove.

(Soundbite of tattoo gun)

ROBERT FREDERICK: At Cheap Tricks Tattoo Studio, Elizabeth Bolhafner(ph) is getting her first tattoo. She has wanted one since she was 13. Now, at 19, an assistant manager of a comic book shop, she chose her tattoo design after months of thought.

Ms. ELIZABETH BOLHAFNER (Tattoo Client): A little symbol from the graphic novel V for Vendetta. Alan Moore is amazing. He's (unintelligible)

Mr. DAVID PAIGE(ph) (Tattoo Artist): My name is David Paige. I will be her artist for today.

FREDERICK: Paige is covered in tattoos, collecting them like fine art from other tattoo artists around the country. He says most clients are women in their mid-30s, getting little flowers or butterflies, but that he's tattooed all ages of business leaders, ministers, doctors - anybody.

Mr. PAIGE: I think tattoos have come just a long, long way. Some places still don't totally accept them, but they're not just for whores or sailors anymore.

FREDERICK: Like other lifetime commitments, tattoos represent permanent change. And that in itself makes some people nervous.

Rox Anderson is a professor of dermatology at Harvard and helped pioneer laser tattoo removal at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Professor ROX ANDERSON (Harvard University): I see a lot of people who've made a mistake with a tattoo. And I also see people who simply got some bad artwork, and it's very hard to remove at times.

FREDERICK: That's partly because doctors don't know exactly what they're trying to remove. Tattoo ink makers keep secrets. They're not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, so the inks can have just about anything in them, including carcinogens.

Prof. ANDERSON: In addition, there are heavy metals. There's cadmium, there's zinc.

FREDERICK: It's that long list of drawbacks that led Anderson and his colleagues to develop a new ink that challenges the very idea of tattoo as a permanent mark.

Prof. ANDERSON: I don't think it's much different than, you know, changing your hair, deciding to grow a mustache or not. I mean, it's a part of life. Enjoy it, you know?

FREDERICK: The ink is a combination of dyes and a polymer already approved by the FDA. The polymer is a plastic that can't be absorbed by the body. The dyes can. They're biodegradable. But as long as the dyes are bound to the polymer, the ink is like regular tattoo ink -permanent.

But with a single laser treatment, the bond to the polymer is destroyed. The tattoo disappears as the dyes break down and are absorbed by the body.

Prof. ANDERSON: The polymer stays there, but that's not very scary. If it's a simple polymer that doesn't cause reactions in the cell and is not colored, you'll never know that it's there.

FREDERICK: Anderson says removal is much faster, easier and less painful than for a normal tattoo. That's because removing a normal tattoo requires several laser treatments, at least one for each color.

(Soundbite of tattoo gun)

FREDERICK: Tattoo artist David Paige is looking forward to the new technology, even though he knows some people will insist on the old inks.

Mr. PAIGE: You can't tell someone what to do. They do what they want to, and we just try to accommodate them, you know.

FREDERICKS: And that's exactly the motivation behind developing the new tattoo ink: helping people do what they want to do, safely.

Martin Schmieg is president and CEO of Freedom-2, the company that's bringing the technology to market.

Mr. MARTIN SCHMIEG (President and CEO, Freedom-2): We want to bring Freedom-2 inks to market to provide a level of safety that has previously not existed in the tattoo market, and a freedom for tattoo wearers to change their mind.

FREDERICK: To prove the technology, Schmieg tried it out on himself. He had his upper arm tattooed with a stylized company logo. And now he's getting it removed, bit by bit over the next two years, to show the technology works over time.

The first bit was removed two weeks ago and has completely disappeared.

Mr. SCHMIEG: I would definitely say that the tattoo, the first tattoo, and my first experience with having a tattoo, was more painful then the first attempts at removing it.

FREDERICK: At this point, no study has been done to determine the safety of the removable tattoo. But Harvard dermatologist Rox Anderson, a small stakeholder in the Freedom-2 company, is putting his own arm on the line next. His proposed tattoo design is Maxwell's Equations, the mathematical underpinnings of laser tattoo removal.

The removable tattoo ink is due out on the market early next year.

For NPR News, I'm Robert Fredrick in St. Louis.

MONTAGNE: And if you want to know more about removable tattoos, visit our Web site, npr.org.

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