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When Lives Change, Laser Erases Symbols of the Past

Times Staff Writer

The rapid snapsnapsnap emanating from the skin of Jay Lee’s nape is not just the sound of ink molecules in the dermis and epidermis being blasted apart by laser but of identity itself being transformed.

Lee sits on the edge of an examination bed in the clinic, his head bowed like a penitent’s. With the business end of a Medlite C6 laser, Dr. Alex Kaplan traces the supermarket-like bar code and number 187 tattooed on the back of Lee’s neck. Each snap leaves a white dot about a quarter of an inch in diameter on the blue-black ink until the curious image is obliterated.

This white “frosting” will disappear and the tattoo will reemerge, but more faintly. After three or four more treatments over the next several months, the 2-square-inch image will be gone, its ink harmlessly dispersed through the lymphatic system, and the world will no longer have a visual reminder of who Jay Lee once was.

Lee is a 34-year-old UCLA-educated dentist who specializes in cosmetic procedures. He practices in Long Beach and lives in Fullerton. On his recent visit to Kaplan’s Tattoo MD clinic in West L.A., he wore the uniform of his profession: crisp blue scrubs and immaculate white sneakers.

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During his youth, Lee, who was adopted from Vietnam at age 4, was a member of the West Coast Asian Boys, “one of the more ruthless gangs around,” he says. The bar code he had inked on his neck when he was 16 refers to the police radio code for a homicide -- 187.

“Stupid -- stupid, stupid, stupid,” Lee says shaking his head. “I was the typical teenage rebellious kid. Thank God I never killed anybody. But sometimes I get pulled over by the police, and when the cops see the tattoo, they say, ‘Oh, boy. What’ve we got here?’ It attracts the wrong attention. I don’t want my patients to see it anymore, or my colleagues.”

The bar code is not Lee’s only tattoo. He has elaborate figures, including one of a gecko, on each of his upper arms and a fourth on one leg. “I got those in Maine in my early 20s. These tattoos have no meaning in my life now. They came while I was going through a divorce and I was being self-destructive.”

By now, tattooing has been immensely popular for more than a decade. The trend also has spawned a countervailing boom in tattoo-removal.

Kaplan, a plastic surgeon who also works as an emergency room physician, and his wife, Amy, a social worker, opened Tattoo MD on the second floor of a Santa Monica Boulevard shopping center last April and equipped it with the state-of-the-art $86,000 Medlite C6, which removes tattoos without scarring. Patrons began showing up practically as soon as the clinic doors were first unlocked, willingly paying a maximum of $49 per square inch of tattoo per treatment, which typically number between four and eight.

Kaplan compares the pain of the laser treatment to “a rubber band being snapped repeatedly against the skin” followed by a few days of sunburn-like sensation at the treated area. A patient’s tattoo is first smeared with an anesthetic cream to minimize discomfort.

The process is a far cry from Rudy Madrigal’s attempts to remove his tattoos.

A lanky, dark-skinned, handsome man of 25 clad in black jeans, black T-shirt, black half-gloves and flip-flops, Madrigal recounts his ordeals while awaiting Kaplan’s ministrations. On his left forearm is a long, fierce scar where once there had been a tattoo. On his left hand is a faded 9-year-old tattoo that is hard to read but once spelled out “Keystone,” the Torrance gang to which Madrigal at one time belonged.

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During his turbulent teen years, he says, he was alienated from his family and stayed mostly at the homes of friends, “the wrong crowd.” To prove he belonged, he had a friend make the tattoo on his hand. On the forearm, he burned the word “Keystone” a second time into his skin.

After Madrigal quit the gang, he expunged the forearm tattoo with a kitchen spatula heated red hot on a stove, ergo the scar. The hand tattoo he attacked by regularly mashing out lighted cigarette butts on it before finally giving up because of the pain.

Now he works as a carpenter, and a month ago he married a young woman from Hong Kong. Soon, he would be joining her in Hong Kong, and he was determined to rid himself of the remaining tattoo before meeting his new wife’s extended family.

“My future now is to be really successful in Hong Kong, in business or anything else,” he says. “I’m even going to learn Cantonese.”

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Snapsnapsnap. The smell of singed hand hairs rises in the treatment room as Kaplan begins the exorcism of Madrigal’s past.

Meanwhile, in the clinic’s anteroom, Sergio Escobedo and Bonnie Yen await their personal alterations.

Escobedo is a swaggering, good-natured man of 28, 6 feet 2 and 315 pounds. With shaved head and goatee, he is a longtime member, now inactive, of a Westside gang. He has the gang’s name tattooed across his upper chest and has decided to have it taken off.

He’s come to realize, he says, that such a tattoo signals that “that you’re just a thug.” Escobedo works as a pool man and, no matter how hot the weather, is loath to remove his shirt.

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He doesn’t, however, wish to be ink-free. Once the gang tattoo is gone, he will get “a full T-shirt” tattoo that will cover his body from the waist up. “I want all pictures, Mexican Aztec work,” he says. “And girls, of course. Who doesn’t want girls on them?”

Escobedo lies full back on the treatment bed. If there is a little pain, he says, he’s not concerned. “It’s like everything I’ve ever done -- you have pain.”

Yen had a lotus blossom, to her a symbol of beauty and purity, tattooed in black, red, yellow and purple on the small of her back.

At the time, she was 18 and working in a bar in San Francisco. She was inspired to get the tattoo by her boss. “He had his whole body tattooed,” she says. “He was a kind of father figure -- the cool dad I never had.”

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Yen is no longer 18, nor is she working in a bar. Nor does she still think her father, a professor, is so uncool. She’s about to graduate with a degree in physiology and a straight-A average from UCLA. At 26, she thinks more and more about someday having children and her skin stretching as a result and the tattoo looking terrible. “I just decided that natural would be best.”

Consulting with Kaplan, she learns the wages of youthful impulsiveness. Erasing the elaborate 12 1/2 -square-inch image will require numerous treatments over about six months. The total cost will be about $2,000, roughly 10 times what she paid for the tattoo.

She troubles for a moment over the clinic’s various financing alternatives, then decides to proceed. “I still think the lotus is pure and beautiful,” she says, “but I don’t need to have it tattooed on me. I feel now like my body was dirtied with the ink.”

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Web resources

The U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health provide 20 links to information about tattoos and body piercing from agencies that include the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Mayo Clinic and the Nemours Foundation. Some offer links in Spanish. At www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/print/piercingandtattoos.html

Source: Los Angeles Times research


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