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Life in L.A.: Dr. Will Kirby, tattoo removal specialist

July 27, 2009 |  6:00 am

The business of removing tattoos is about regrets, reversals and clean slates. It's medical science that makes this business possible.

The lasers used in tattoo removal (quality-switched, or Q-switched, lasers) work by a search-and-destroy method. Instead of cutting out a tattoo or burning it off, the laser technology recognizes the hyper-pigmented skin and breaks up the ink into particles.

Ultimately, “tramp stamps,” ex-girlfriends’ names and the purple butterfly that once meant so much are no more. Over the course of several treatments, the markings of your past can completely disappear.

During a procedure, patients wear eye-protective goggles, put on numbing cream and squeeze a stress ball, and within minutes their laser treatment is completed.

We recently interviewed Dr. Will Kirby of the Beverly Hills-based Dr. Tattoff, a tattoo removal company that has seen it all -- and then erased it.

What’s involved in removing a tattoo?

There are a lot of different ways to remove tattoos, but the gold standard is a quality-switched laser. In the last seven to 10 years is when that technique became readily available.

The other types of removal have become obsolete because the Q laser leaves virtually no scarring.

Are there any dangers to having a tattoo removed?

Every medical device, every medicine has good side effects and bad side effects. The procedure is very painful. It is uncomfortable, but tolerable. That’s a bad side effect, but it does occur. You also get a little swelling and pinpoint bleeding.

The laser works by selective photothermolysis. The laser goes in and fragments the ink, but does virtually nothing to your surrounding skin.

Are there any dangers in getting a tattoo?

What’s funny is that we have a great relationship with tattoo artists. They have a motto: fresh for fresh skin. So oftentimes we see people who are coming in to have tattoos removed in order to make space for new ones. Maybe it’s an ex-lover or something they are no longer involved in, like a band or a gang. So they’ll get those tattoos removed and have fresh ink put on.

There are some risks in getting a tattoo. Most shops are pretty clean, but there have been cases of people getting hepatitis B and C, HIV and even tuberculosis.

Dr. Tattoff

Can you remove a tattoo permanently without scarring?

It takes multiple treatments to remove a tattoo. Typically the treatments are spaced out by several weeks. The number of treatments depends on several factors: color, size, location of the tattoo.

The easiest color to remove is black ink. As you get more colors, the harder it becomes to remove. Yellow is very hard to remove. 

If you can feel the tattoo, then you’ll always feel it. If it is kind of raised before you come to see me, it is going to be harder to remove.

Why is yellow hard to remove?

The laser light has a specific wavelength of light that black preferentially absorbs. Yellow doesn’t absorb any amount of laser wavelength at all. Green can be challenging as well.

What’s the most regretted type of tattoo?

If you can think of it, I’ve seen it. We’ve seen penis tattoos.

If you get your lover’s name on your body, that’s the kiss of death for the relationship.

We’ve seen a lot of barbed-wire arm bands and tribal arm bands. The Tasmanian Devil and Tweety Bird.
And what was affectionately known as the “tramp stamp.” Girls are definitely regretting that one.

Who are your patients?

Approximately 85% of my patients are women with annual incomes of over $50,000, between the ages of 18 and 44. A lot of young women are stigmatized by their past.

Would you advise people to simply not get tattoos in the first place?

I’m not one to judge. I encourage it, as long as you do it safely. A properly done tattoo has no health ramifications.

When did your business open? Have you seen a year-over-year increase in patients?

The Beverly Hills clinic opened in 2005. Irvine opened in 2006, and the Encino clinic in 2007.

Yeah, absolutely, we definitely saw a dip at the end of last year as the macro-economy had dipped.
But that seems to have corrected, as 2009 is the best it’s ever been.

When you are searching for a job or going into the military, you don’t want tattoos in visible places.

Tattoo Removal Stages

Have you seen patients in your office that are kids [under 18] who got tattoos illegally?

We treat people who are under 18 one or two times per week. They are usually accompanied by an angry parent.

What’s the cost of having a tattoo removed?

Generally, it costs five to 10 times the amount to remove the tattoo as it did to get the tattoo. Price varies based on color and location. Depending on where the tattoo is -- the very vascular parts of the body respond much faster. Parts of the body that have poor drainage take longer to heal.

How did you get into this business?

As a first-year resident after medical school, I had to write a paper on tattoo removal. I realized there was a huge void there.

-- Lori Kozlowski

Photo credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times