Tattoos No Longer Reserved for the Rebellious Tattoos were once a signature mark of the disaffected and dangerous, but in recent years, body art has moved into the mainstream. Guests and callers discuss how tattoos became trendy, and whether employers need to re-think their policies about visible tattoos in the workplace.
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Tattoos No Longer Reserved for the Rebellious

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Tattoos No Longer Reserved for the Rebellious

Tattoos No Longer Reserved for the Rebellious

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

Tattoos were once associated with rebelliousness and danger, sailors, gang members and prostitutes. It's TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

And we're talking about tattoos this hour because in recent years, tattoos have become positively trendy. Bankers, teenagers and soccer moms alike adorn their back, hips and biceps. And whether it's a fire-breathing dragon, you're boyfriend's name in a little heart, or a feel-good Chinese character, tattoos affect the way people - both in the workplace and out - perceive you.

Do you have a tattoo? Does it change the way people see you? And do you have a tattoo you regret? Join the conversation. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And you comment on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Later in the hour, we'll have the latest on the bridge collapse in Minnesota. But first, living with tattoos. Paul Roe is a tattoo artist and historian and owner of Britishink Tattoo Studio and Gallery here in Washington, D.C. He joins us here in studio 3A. Welcome.

Mr. PAUL ROE (Tattoo Artist; Owner, Britishink Tattoo Studio and Gallery, Washington, D.C.): Good afternoon.

ROBERTS: Let me ask you. Who are your customers? Who's getting tattoos?

Mr. ROE: In Washington, D.C., it's a very diverse market. Everybody from students to military, professionals, lobbyists - it runs the gamut, really.

ROBERTS: And what do you think is the appeal? What brings them to you?

Mr. ROE: I truly believe that the appeal is innately human. It's a very primeval instinct to want to decorate the body.

ROBERTS: And yet, it's such a permanent way to do so?

Mr. ROE: Absolutely. Irreversible decisions are good for the soul.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Words to live by. Have you seen a difference in your clientele in the last few years?

Mr. ROE: Strange enough, no. Washington is very transient as a city. And you see the faces are different, but the people are basically the same.

ROBERTS: Do you get more business when it's a Democratic administration versus a Republican?

Mr. ROE: I really don't know. There's any difference at all.

ROBERTS: You haven't tracked that data?

Mr. ROE: No, I don't. I really don't think there's any difference.

ROBERTS: So what do you think - give me some of the reasons that people give you for wanting a tattoo.

Mr. ROE: There are memorial tattoos, where somebody is looking to commemorate the life of a lost loved one, a pet even. There are the tattoos - totemic, where somebody wishes to take on the characteristics of, say, a mountain lion or a dragon or another strange creature. They identify with that and wish to express that spirit through the decoration on their skin. Community to belong to, a tribe - ultimately, that's what we are, a tribe of human beings. And as humans, we like to quantify and break the tribe up into smaller tribes.

Even within the heavily tattooed industry, there are those that have purely black tribal work, those that have purely Japanese work and those that have the old-school American traditional tattooing, and will only get that specific type of tattooing. Each of own, it really is a matter of personal taste.

ROBERTS: And do you have regular clients? I mean, is your signature specific enough that people say I want a Paul Roe?

Mr. ROE: Absolutely, I am, I do have a regular client base. I would say 50 percent of my work is from referrals. And really, that's the best way to find a good artist is to see art - healed, finished tattoos - on somebody of a quality, of a style that you like, and inquires to where they got that.

And word of mouth is crucial in this business. It's all reputation. Every single piece, regardless of the size, regardless of the imagery, every single tattoo that I apply has to be treated as though it was going to be tattooed on myself.

And with as much respect regardless of the size, regardless of the imagery, each tattoo requires its own individual attention.

ROBERTS: Well, with that kind of standard, have you ever tried to talk someone out of a tattoo?

Mr. ROE: Yes, if we could.

ROBERTS: Really?

Mr. ROE: People will come in with blown-up ideas. The skin is an amazing medium to work with. It's very finite amount of detail that can be achieved overtime, the longevity of a tattoo. Now, bearing in mind, permanence - it's on you until you're dust.

It must be structured, so that in 20, 30 years time - as the skin ages and loses its elasticity, there will be migration of pigment through the skin. The image should be of a detail level that will hold up to that, that will accommodate for the aging skin process.

And in 20 years time, quite frankly, I hope to still be tattooing and I still want people to send the referrals to me based on the work that was done decades ago.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Mary in Sacramento. Mary, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

MARY (Caller): Thank you.

ROBERTS: Do you hear me?

MARY: Can you hear me?

ROBERTS: Yeah, we can.

MARY: Okay good. I could barely hear you. Oh, I'm 51 and I didn't get my first tattoo until my early 40s because I let Paul talk me out of it when I was in my teens in my early 20s. And I finally realized that I really did want one and I wanted one that represented who I was.

So my first one was on my inside right ankle, and then I got my second one a few years later on my left shoulder. And I'm about to get my third and, like I said, I'm now 51…

ROBERTS: And, Mary, what are they?

MARY: In one of the inside of my ankle is actually a cat face, a kitty face. And again, I chose what really represents who I am. Over the years, I've rescued animals, all different kinds, but cats - I just tend to be a cat magnet. It's what my daughter calls me. They find their way to me.

And I have five right now of my own. And so I got the little kitty face. And then, on my shoulder, is a paw print on the front of my left shoulder and then three paw prints going down the back as if they're literally walking over me, figuratively and literally.

And the third one I'm planning on getting is the Chinese symbol - and I've had this verified by someone from China - for tranquility. And I'm not - the reason I've hesitated so far of getting it is I'm not exactly sure I'm going to put it yet.

And it's interesting because I'm in a very, very conservative business of financial industry, and so I very carefully place them on my body where I can cover them up.

ROBERTS: How do you cover the one on the inside of your ankle?

MARY: Long pants. I don't have to wear skirt and dresses. And the inside of the ankle - the reason I want it with the inside instead of outside is because it's just not as visible. But again, they really represent who I am. And the advice I give people who want to get a tattoo, especially young people would - first of all, put it some place - your first one - where you can cover it up.

And second of all, really make it something that represents who you are. I asked the tattoo artist who was doing mine, what he thought of this 40-something woman coming in, getting her first tattoo? And he thought it was very cool because I was getting something that really represented who I was, and not just something that was trendy and popular to do that I might regret down the road.

ROBERTS: Mary, thanks for your call. I think we hear a lot of people say one tattoo is not enough. Paul Roe, do you think they're addictive to some degree?

Mr. ROE: Well, I think that they are the milestones on the journey that is life. You go down that road, something will happen, an event will happen. You wish to commemorate - be it joyous or otherwise. And at that point in time you make a decision you get a tattoo, forevermore, you will back at that permanent mark on your skin and remember where you were in your life at that point in time.

And the idea of a controlled decision, being in - placed on the body where you have the control as to whether or not you wish to show it or not, is something to be considered. Public skin such as the back of hands, neck, facial tattooing requires a very specific personality in order to carry that of in every day social life, can be quite a stigma especially in this country.

ROBERTS: We're joined now by Molly Selvin. She's an L.A. Times staff writer and author of the L.A. Times article "Better hide the tattoo if you want the job." She joins us from our studios in Culver City, California. Welcome.

Ms. MOLLY SELVIN (Author, "Better Hide the Tattoo if You Want the Job"): Welcome. Thank you, Rebecca. It's really great to be here.

ROBERTS: So, you interviewed both employers and employees for your article. Is what Paul Roe was saying about the visible parts of your body where you can't cover it up ringing true to you?

Ms. SELVIN: Yes, absolutely. I interviewed a number of employees in a variety of professions and also a number of bosses, sometimes, the boss of the person I interviewed. And there's been some survey data that's out there now on tattoos. And some dermatologists, for example, from the University of Chicago and Northwestern, published a survey last year, and they found that most people tend to cover their tattoos up at work - more women than men, which goes along with what Mary said, which I find interesting.

ROBERTS: Because of, what? They're worried having a tattoo will connote in the workplace?

Ms. SELVIN: Yeah. They're worried about it. There are some generational differences that I've found, and that, I think, is what's really interesting to me. And those generational differences towards body art - tattooing and piercing as well - play out in the workplace, no surprise.

Many baby boomers are now in positions where they hire people and they may be -as a group - less enamored of tattoos and piercings than younger people, who tend to have more tattoos and body piercings. But they don't want to lose out on really promising employees, and so there's this tension now in many workplaces about whether to allow tattoos and what kind of tattoos to allow.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Marin(ph) in San Jose. Marin, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

MARIN (Caller): Hi. I had to agree with the last person. That was just my feeling about tattoos. My husband was a plastic surgeon - my late husband, and he used to tell me how sad it was for the patients who came in and wanted to have these tattoos removed. And it was going to be a very painful, expensive job, and it wasn't even going to give a good result. And the other thing is, my son just videoed me on YouTube, which was on yesterday where I'm talking about how horrible tattoos are. And, in fact, I've bribed my grandchildren to make sure they do not get tattoos or body piercings.

ROBERTS: And have they taken you up on it?

MARIN: Absolutely.

ROBERTS: Marin.

MARIN: I guess that's one way to make sure your kids don't do it or your grandchildren.

ROBERTS: Marin, thanks for your call.

Paul Roe, have you ever have to deal with an irate parent?

Mr. ROE: Few and far between. It depends on how you structure your business. I will say this, though, that you reap what you sow. And regrets, down the line, are the results of ill research, poor decisions made. If a decision is given consideration, if the research that you do before you get your tattoo - where you go, who you select to apply this, and more importantly, how you take care of it after the procedure until it's fully healed, and how you weather it in the sun, how do you generally take care of your skin in general - will lead to very few poor decisions. If the research has put in, if you - as a potential tattoo client - actually put some fault into it, the chances of it being less applicable to you in 10 years time are greatly reduced.

ROBERTS: We're talking about tattoos this hour. If you've got the remains of a disastrous romance inked on your arm, give us a call, 800-989-TALK.

And coming up, we'll talk to a doctor who can remove the evidence. I'm Rebecca Roberts. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington, filling in for Neal Conan.

Tattoos have spread from the bar room to the boardroom. And we're talking about those fairies, bald eagles, dragons, any other flying objects that might grace or mar your hipbones, depending on how you feel about it.

Our guests are Paul Roe, he's a tattoo artist and historian and owner of Britishink Tattoo Studio and Gallery in Washington D.C., as well as L.A. Times staff writer, Molly Selvin. And you're invited to join the conversation. Go ahead and confess what's written on your body. Do you love it or do you regret it? Like Melissa(ph) in La Crosse, Wisconsin, who writes in to say, I have a tattoo I regret. I got it on my 18th birthday. A great piece of advice I got after I regret was pick something and hang it on your fridge for six months, and if you still want it after that, you may have less of chance of regret.

Give us a call at 800-989-TALK or e-mail us at talk@npr.org. Check out our blog, npr.org/blogofthenation.

Paul Roe, I know that you tend to do sort of larger, more artistic works, but what sort of cost are we talking about? How much does an average tattoo cost?

Mr. ROE: The average tattoo depends on the person applying it and the marketplace, basically. The same-size tattoo at any given studio in New York city is going to cost you differently from Florence, South Carolina.

ROBERTS: And when you see a client's tattoos from another artist, do you sometimes know who they - who's worked there?

Mr. ROE: Yes. Yes, definitely.

ROBERTS: Yeah?

Mr. ROE: There are many very, very talented artists that have their own particular style. It's identifiable. Some people identifiable from blocks away.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call from Amanda(ph) in - I'm sorry, that's not Amanda. Let's take a call from Amanda in Caddis, Kentucky. Is it - did I say that right? You're in Caddis, Kentucky?

AMANDA (Caller): Yes, Caddis, Kentucky.

ROBERTS: Caddis.

AMANDA: Yes. Western Kentucky, close to Nashville.

Mr. ROE: Good afternoon.

AMANDA: I got my tattoo 20 years ago. I was a freshman college. I was 18 years old and very naive. And my friend, Brian, and I got on his motorcycle and we went to a tattoo parlor, which was run by a host of bikers who were, you know, in full biker regalia. I did very little research on it. I just knew that I've had to have this Rolling Stones logo on my hip and I was going to do anything to get it. And at this point, I'm a 40-year-old mother of three and it's still holding up pretty well, I guess, as well, as the Rolling Stones have held up over the years. But regretfully? No. I don't regret having it. When I look at it, it really puts me back into that time of my life. And whenever I start taking myself too seriously, I remember getting on that bike that fall day, and going to get that tattoo, and then having to tell my father about it. But…

ROBERTS: And, Amanda, how did the tattoo on your hip hold up during pregnancy?

AMANDA: Actually, great. I actually went through a twin pregnancy. And it's fine. The, you know, the red part needs to be filled in, I think. I always considered going and have it worked on. But it, you know, sometimes, you know, when I tell people I've got this Rolling Stones tattoo and that, you know, it needs a little work, they say, you know, considering Mick Jagger's mouth, you know, they - it works. It worked well for me over the years, so don't regret it at all.

ROBERTS: Do you think tattoos have gotten artier since then?

AMANDA: Oh, gosh, yes. When, I mean, when we went, there were, you know, your typical roses and butterflies and, you know. My friend got a tattoo of Calvin, you know, from "Calvin and Hobbes." That, at that point, was a huge stretch for that salon to have to reproduce. And he was, kind of, you know, grousing about it. The Rolling Stones were, you know, that was easy, but yes, very much so.

I see - I'm an associate professor and I see my students coming in with what look to be photographs implanted on their skin and it's hard to believe that they have evolved that much. You know, back when I did it, it was rather scandalous. But still, you know, people thought it was kind of cool.

ROBERTS: Amanda, thanks for your call.

Do you have actually better tools to make better pictures, Paul Roe, or is it just creativity explored beyond something like a Rolling Stones logo?

Mr. ROE: Well, the tools themselves haven't changed. The tattoo machine, a twin coil - electromagnetic coil tattoo machine is essentially the same. And its construction as the first machine was patented in 1899 by an Englishman, Alfred South. And the machine hasn't changed. What has changed is the technology in producing things like needles, needle groupings, the way in which an artist puts together the composition, the layout, the flow on the body, all accentuates the element - the visual element - if it's in harmony with the structure.

And I view it very much that you see the image in context of the framework, the framework being an arm or a shoulder. If the image is fluid and conforms to the muscle structure and to the flow of the body, it will have a much more visual appeal.

However, what has changed in the last 20 years is those artists coming in for the business that have had classical art training, that had gone through sketch 101 and way beyond. So they can apply the same techniques as they would use in constructing a painting or sculpture for that matter and the other artistic medium into the medium of skin.

ROBERTS: Hmm. Does it hurt?

Mr. ROE: Does it hurt? No it doesn't hurt. It's irritating. I have to say it's irritating more than it is painful. It depends on the site - the placement on the body, the number of nerve endings in that area. So somewhere, say, the - in a forearm is considerably less sensitive than say, the ribcage.

ROBERTS: And is that different on men and women? The sensitive spots?

Mr. ROE: Yes, yes. Women physically have fewer nerve endings and they are distributed completely differently from men. The lower back tattoos - very, very common for placement for a woman - it's very easy for a woman to take a tattoo in that area - generally speaking, now. Generally speaking, every single tattoo is different because everybody's skin is totally unique and individual to that person. Identical twins, identical tattoos, identical placements - they both felt it differently.

ROBERTS: Hmm. And, Molly Selvin, as you've been talking to people in the workplace, are there either places on the body that are more or less controversial or content that is more or less controversial?

Ms. SELVIN: Well, employers - employment lawyers tell me that companies have a wide latitude to decide what kind of grooming standards they want to set, whether they want tattoos at all, what kind of tattoos. But generally speaking, the employers that I talked to said they drew - they all drew the line at something that they consider to be offensive - either, kind of, gory or racist or sexist - partly, because they feared liability, but also because they feared offending customers. So that in most places that I - where I talked to people, there was that line. They didn't want anything that somebody would recoil at.

ROBERTS: And what about employees who are let go for having tattoos? Do they have any legal recourse?

Ms. SELVIN: No because you're not - it's a not a protected category like race or gender or disability. So if an employee does - if an employer decides, if your boss decides that you - as I understand it, if you don't - if they don't want to have tattoos visible in the workplace and you're not willing to abide by that, you could be gone.

ROBERTS: Molly Selvin, thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. SELVIN: Thank you.

ROBERTS: Molly Selvin is an L.A. Times staff writer and author of the article "Better hide the tattoo if you want the job." She joined us today from our studios in Culver City, California.

And we're joined now by Eric Bernstein. He's the director of Laser Surgery and Cosmetic Dermatology Centers and clinical associate professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania. He joins us from the studios of WCAI in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Welcome.

Dr. ERIC BERNSTEIN (Director, Laser Surgery and Cosmetic Dermatology Centers): Thank you. Pleased to be here.

ROBERTS: So we've talked some about who's getting tattoos. Who's getting tattoos removed?

Dr. BERNSTEIN: Just about everybody. Same people that are getting them put on are getting them removed. You know, it's very hard to predict what you're going to want to live with. I thought that refrigerator advice - putting something up for six months - is very good advice.

ROBERTS: And what are some of the reasons you hear from people wanting to get rid of their tattoos?

Dr. BERNSTEIN: Well, the most common reason is a loved one's name who is no longer a loved one.

Mr. ROE: I will interject, Eric, the - I do have a clause. I do not tattoo names unless it's blood.

ROBERTS: Oh, really?

Mr. ROE: If it's your mother, your father, your offspring - of course. If it's anyone else, choose something that reminds you of them, not their name.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: So…

Dr. BERNSTEIN: The reasons are as varied for getting them off as for getting them on, you know. I grew tired of that picture, work-related. I'm working with a teacher now who feels that his tattoo is pretty scary to little kids and he wants it off.

ROBERTS: And what is involved in tattoo removal? What's the process?

Dr. BERNSTEIN: Well the process - and by the way, I think we all have the same nerve endings. I just think in my practice, women seem to be tougher than the men. The men feel pain. I like to think we have more nerve endings, but I'm a doctor, so I know we're just not as tough. But what's involved is usually we numb the area with a needle - with Novocaine. And then a laser is applied, which seize the tattoo inks.

So immediately when you watch the procedure, it looks like the tattoo is disappearing. And then, about 15 minutes later, it looks kind of just like the way it did when they came in, but it's irritated. And over the next six weeks, the inflammation that it's created as well as rupturing the particles into smaller pieces causes your body to take the tattoo away through the lymphatic system. So it's a gradual disappearance and it does take - on average, for a professional tattoo - six to twelve treatments.

ROBERTS: Are there certain colors that are farther than others to get up?

Dr. BERNSTEIN: No doubt about it. Orange is very difficult to get out and green. So often, you'll see during the removal…

ROBERTS: Just because the frequencies? I mean, or the dye that's used? What makes them harder?

Dr. BERNSTEIN: Well - that's a great question. It is the dye that's used. Normally, you pick a color of light that's going to be taken up by the tattoo. But the other problem we have is we don't really know what's in all the tattoo inks. They're not regulated. So at any one time, you know, you're lasering a tattoo, you have no idea what's in those inks.

Black is fairly easy to remove because black - if you've walked outside on a hot summer day, you know that black absorbs light because it burns your feet. So black takes up every laser light and it's probably the easiest color to get out.

ROBERTS: And what are you left with after it's removed?

Dr. BERNSTEIN: Well, if you do it right - if I do it right, you're left with normal skin, where you can't see the tattoo at all. And that's really what should happen if it's done properly. I mean, occasionally, there's colors that are stubborn. You can see a halo, for example.

But the key is having all the right equipment. It often takes more than one laser to get a tattoo completely out, sort of like with an antibiotic, where, you know, they can become resistant to a given, you know, bacteria. When we're lasering a tattoo, it can come - become resistant to a certain color of laser, and the key is to switch to a different laser. If people only have one, they may turn it up, in which case you don't want to turn the laser too high because then you can hurt the skin and make a scar.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Anne(ph) in Jacksonville. Anne, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ANNE (Caller): Oh, thank you. Yeah, I wanted to comment. My husband, he has a tattoo of the Lorax, the Dr, Seuss character, on his upper arm and he got it in his early 20s and he is now 38.

He went through a period of regret there about it. But now, I think, you know, we have little children and I think he kind of uses that as a reminder to keep that ideology, you know, in his head when we're raising our kids and think about, you know - have the environment in your minds and, you know, it's, you know, just that constant reminder that you want to pass it on to them instead of passing only to regret about it, you know.

ROBERTS: And Anne, how is it looking? Is it holding up pretty well?

ANNE: Oh, it's a little less faded. He didn't get like the best job done, you know. He did it on a whim. But, you know, it's definitely recognizable and, you know. My son, who is 2, you know, he - whenever he sees the book, he's like, daddy?

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Anne, thanks so much for your call. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Paul Roe, as a tattoo artist, can you tell when someone's there on a whim and might regret it tomorrow? Have you sometimes told people to come back in a week?

Mr. ROE: Well, my process involves initial contact through email or through telephone call and then setting up of consultation. And…

ROBERTS: And they're not just walking in?

Mr. ROE: No. They're not just walking in. In that consultation, you really look at the reasons why they want to do this, the elements that they brought you and ways in which you could structure and apply this to make it the best possible tattoo that they could get.

That's custom tattooing. When you - to find a term here - when you walk into a tattoo shop and you look and you see all those pictures up on the walls, that's termed flash, stalk imagery that is available for anybody working in street shops - that is a walk-in situation. People oftentimes come in, browse the racks, see a design that they like, maybe get it straight away, or go away come back, look again, see that image, approach the artist.

And oftentimes, the artist will take that image and redo it and to draw it slightly differently so it isn't a cookie cutter style. Custom tattooing, however, on the other hand, is akin to having a tailor-made suit, where you'd walk in, get measured these - your requirements, this is the style that you wish to achieve, and the image is structured individually for you and not repeat it.

ROBERTS: And what sort of training do you go through to become a tattoo artist? Are there different levels?

Mr. ROE: Traditionally, apprenticeship. It is an apprentice-driven industry and has been for thousands and thousands of years, where you show your loyalty. You work - and it's often unpaid - and you clean and you make meals and you scrub and you clean and you make meals and you make stencils.

And then, maybe a year or two down the line, if you're lucky, they'll teach you the way around a tattoo machine. At that point, you are still an apprentice. I certainly wouldn't consider myself a master at all - a journeyman at best, and I've been tattooing for nine years. So it's just way too much information to learn in order to master the craft and those that have mastered the craft have been in this business for at least 25 years.

ROBERTS: Let's hear it from Mark in Seattle. Mark, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

MARK (Caller): Hello.

Mr. ROE: Hello.

MARK: I was just going to make a comment. I have about 70 percent of my body covered in tattoos and I work in a bank.

Mr. ROE: Rock on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARK: What's that?

Mr. ROE: Rock on, sir. Rock on.

MARK: I mean, to be - I mean, to be honest, I don't have to deal with customers every day, but I do deal with customers and I find - like I have tattoos on my hands, on my neck. And they're not - they're more interested than shocked. And another comment I have was, I more view myself as a collector of art than anything. I have a back piece that took me 75 hours to complete.

Mr. ROE: Who is the artist on the back piece, sir?

MARK: His name is Micah Cichowicz.

Mr. ROE: Oh, really?

MARK: Yes. And - I don't know, I just view it as art. There's not that many of my tattoos that actually have personal meaning to me. Most of them are just…

ROBERTS: What's the big one on your back, Mark?

MARK: It is a, kind of - it's an original drawing, but it's inspired by Faust(ph), the artist Faust. And most of my tattoos are kind of demon or dark like that. But I just think it's all art, you know. I don't think they have to - they're not to mean anything personal.

ROBERTS: Mark, thanks for your call. And Dr. Bernstein, have you seen people come in to get something removed because they want to start again? They're trying to sort of go for a blank canvass?

Dr. BERNSTEIN: Oh, absolutely. One of the worse things I deal with is people that cover up tattoos with second tattoos. I'd much rather see them get it removed by laser and then start over. So, yeah, that's fairly common.

Mr. ROE: Well, the problem there is - in going into covering up an existing tattoo - you have to be exceptionally skilled to be able to pull it off. And quite frankly, there are just not enough people out there with skills to be able to do that. And getting it partially lightened will help a great deal in covering up and applying a fresh piece of art to your skin.

ROBERTS: Dr. Bernstein, thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. BERNSTEIN: Thanks for having me.

ROBERTS: Eric Bernstein is the director of Laser Surgery and Cosmetic Dermatology Centers and clinical associate professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania. You can visit his Web site at www.dermguy.com. He joined us from WCAI in Woods Hole.

Coming up more with tattoo artist Paul Roe. And then, the bridge collapse in Minneapolis raises questions about the structural soundness of other bridges. We've got answers from bridge experts after the break.

It's Rebecca Roberts, TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: And now, we're talking about tattoos with tattoo artist and historian Paul Roe. He's the owner of Britishink Tattoo Studio and Gallery in Washington, D.C. And let's take a call. This is O.J. in Athens, Ohio. O.J., welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

O.J. (Caller): Hi. How are you?

ROBERTS: Good.

O.J.: Thanks for taking my call. I have several tattoos. I enjoy them and I've always taken my time taking them out, and I'm quite happy with them. But I've been hearing little things about, like, ointments that would supposedly take, you know, relieve a tattoo, or supposedly inks that are like semi-permanent. And I was just wondering if Paul knows anything about those, if it's anything safe even.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROE: Well, the tattoo lies in the dermis, so you've got to get through the epidermis, and then partly through the dermis - for argument's sake, the second of layer skin. So any topical creams need to penetrate down and then break up the pigment and we just don't have the technology to make those at the moment. So in my humble opinion, bunk to all of that.

The subject of a semi-permanent ink has been in the works for a couple of years. To my understanding, it is a dye, which is separate from a pigment. A dye, at a molecular level, still has color. Pigment is a crystalline structure, which refracts light and therefore gives off color. A dye encapsulated in a polymetha-acrylate, an acrylic sphere to which the exterior is a silicon dioxide of glass is applied to the outside.

Now, the theory goes that a specific wavelength of laser will rupture these and the dye, which is soluble in the body, will then be flushed away by the body system. It's in testing, the patent is out - I'm very dubious, and what…

ROBERTS: Why are you dubious?

Mr. ROE: …what becomes of the debris that's left over, billions and billions of shrunts(ph) of tiny pieces of plastic and glass. Do you have crunchy skin after that? I cannot see this working. And also, the physics - in the application process, you have needles, steel needles thrashing against the steel tipped tube. It's enough to wear the tip of the tube.

How is it going to apply to the individual particles, which are wrapped in little bowls of plastic and silicon dioxide? It's just going to get smashed to pieces. I really cannot see how it would work. It's very experimental at the moment. I go as far to say hypothetical.

ROBERTS: I think we have time for one more call. This is John in Sacramento. John, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JOHN (Caller): All right. Thanks for taking my call. I just, I tend to think that tattoos are largely about self-expression, which is something like we normally applaud. But for some reason, with the stigma that's attached to these things, they're just - I mean, that just doesn't hold true. And I just wanted to comment there's an old adage in the community that the difference between people who have tattoos and people who don't is that the people who have tattoos don't care if you have tattoos or not.

Mr. ROE: Absolutely, yeah. I've heard that many a time.

ROBERTS: John, thanks for your call. Do you think there's still a stigma? Is it changing?

Mr. ROE: It fluctuates. And if you historically look at it, the aristocracy, the Victorian period, tattoos were all the rage. If you had the money to do the grand toll to do the empire - go out to Hong Kong, go out to Japan. What did you bring back? You brought back a tattoo, and it showed that you have the wealth and the means to do this. Very popular.

However, falls off during the first, second World War, comes back into popularity with the flower child, hippy revolution, it's self-expression, it's individuality expressed on the skin, MTV, the basketball teams, sports players and all the way up to TV shows. It ebbs and flows. They're - tattooing is not a trend. It's always been with - there are trends within tattooing, but it has been with us for, at least, 6,000 years that we know of.

And we have - the iceman was excavated in 1991. He's dated at 5,600 years old and he's tattooed. We have Pazyryk chiefs, 3,500 years old mummified bodies -glorious tattoos with stags and leaping hares and tigers - almost a modern approach to the way in which they're laid out and placed on the skin. It's been with us forever. It's just ebbed in and out popularity.

And largely, the American culture is based on European culture and the immigrants from Europe. I am a firm believer that the prejudice against tattooing was brought with the early settlers, and most of them with religious agendas. And I think that goes back to 325 Council of Nicaea, when Constantine outlawed tattooing as a pagan practice - actually, outlawed penal tattooing of the face as a pagan practice.

ROBERTS: Well, we've had a history lesson, and art lesson, and a molecular lesson all from you today. Thank you so much, Paul Roe.

Mr. ROE: The pleasure is mine. Thank you.

ROBERTS: Paul Roe is a tattoo artist and historian. He's the owner of Britishink Tattoo Studio and Gallery here in Washington. You can visit his Web site at www.paulroe.com, and he joined us here in Studio 3A.

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