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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, June 13, 2003

Tattoo vanishing art for some

By Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser Health Writer

Navy Master Chief John Baldwin had his tattoos removed by laser because they didn't fit his lifestyle anymore.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

Twenty-one years ago, Navy Lt. Kenneth Meehan was a 17-year-old sailor who got a tattoo — a pink panther smoking a cigarette — to mark himself as one of the guys.

These days, Meehan is a tattoo-less physician's assistant at Tripler Army Medical Center who spends the better part of one day a week helping other service members get rid of their tattoos.

It's a growing trend among military personnel, officials say, prompted in part by stricter service regulations on tattoos and by laser treatments that have made removal easier (though not pain-free).

Tripler offers free laser removal sessions once a week, and the demand far exceeds the space available, said Army Maj. William Henghold, a dermatologist at the hospital. It takes six to 20 half-hour sessions to remove most tattoos, he said.

"If we opened our doors and said free tattoo removal for all military, we would be overwhelmed," Henghold said.

He said no statistics are kept on how many people are having tattoos removed at Tripler, which serves all branches of the military. But about a third of his tattoo patients, Henghold said, have been ordered by brass to get them removed because the military deems them offensive.

Taboo tattoos are described by the acronym RISE: racist, indecent, sexist or extremist. Those would include gang markings, drug images, swastikas, burning crosses and naked women. In addition, the Army set a policy that soldiers who enlisted on or after Aug. 1, 2002, may not have tattoos that are visible when soldiers are in dress uniform.

Removing tattoos leaves laser marks on the skin.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

The other two-thirds of his patients are doing so voluntarily, Henghold said. Reasons vary: A tattoo that enamored a 19-year-old might be inappropriate on an older soldier (or one climbing the officer ranks); or there's that name of a former girlfriend or boyfriend best forgotten.

"Tattoos are a big part of the military experience," Henghold said, but a tattoo with racist implications can create resentment and has started fights. "You throw 'em in a barracks with a bunch of other guys who may be offended by that and it really is a problem for morale and discipline."

Tattoo regulations for each branch of the military vary slightly but follow general guidelines: Tattoos should not be visible in a dress uniform (such as on forearms, hands, neck) and those of an offensive nature are banned totally. Some tattoos — such as those on hands and forearms — are "grandfathered in" for those in the service.

"It's not a cosmetic issue solely," Meehan said, because some tattoos can hurt the lives of the service members.

Navy Lt. Ken Meehan removes one of Master Chief John Baldwin's many tattoos.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

Meehan, 38, joined the Navy at 16, with his parents' permission, and within a year got a tattoo of a Pink Panther-like character smoking a cigarette. He was 6 feet 5, weighed 145 pounds and tried desperately to blend in.

"Anything I could do to fit in, I was there," he said. But as time passed, some people thought the image had drug connotations, and he had the cartoon cat obscured.

Before laser treatments, people removed tattoos by sanding them off or cutting them off. Tripler began the laser removal when the technology became more widely available two years ago. The same laser also is used to remove scars.

Patients at Tripler receive free treatment. Henghold said each treatment session would probably cost an average of $200 at a private laser-removal clinic.

Meehan and Henghold caution people against impulsive tattoos that can last much longer than most fads.

"Before you get that tattoo, really, really think," Henghold said.

Tattoo policies

ARMY: No visible tattoos when wearing a dress uniform, and no tattoos that are extremist, indecent, sexist or racist anywhere on body. Exception: soldiers in the service before Aug. 1, 2002, may have tattoos on their hands as long as they are non-offensive.

AIR FORCE: No tattoos that are obscene, that advocate sexual, racial, ethnic, or religious discrimination, or that “are prejudicial to good order and discipline, or that are of a nature that tends to bring discredit upon the Air Force.” Other visible tattoos must be covered by clothing or removed.

NAVY: No tattoos on head, face, neck or scalp, or such markings that “are prejudicial to good order, discipline and morale or are of a nature to bring discredit upon the Navy.” Waivers for other existing tattoos may be requested.

MARINE CORPS: No tattoos on neck or head. No tattoos “that are prejudicial to good order, discipline and morale or are of a nature to bring discredit upon the Marine Corps.”

COAST GUARD: No tattoos on neck or face, or that “are contrary to published basic core values of the Coast Guard, prejudicial to good order and discipline, or morale, or are of a nature to bring discredit upon the service.”

Navy Master Chief John Baldwin got most of his upper body and arms tattooed extensively beginning 24 years ago. He has geisha girls, a samurai, a rose and a variety of symbols across his chest, back and arms.

"It was just a sailor thing," he said. Baldwin said he became more religious a few years ago and decided to begin removing his tattoos because he was no longer happy with them.

"I didn't feel that these were right," he said, looking down at the tattoos, some still vivid, others faded by the laser. He got one, a spider web, to emulate a mentor in the Navy. He said he was shocked when someone tapped him on the shoulder at the grocery store and asked him if the tattoos meant that he'd killed someone.

On a recent day, he sat quietly in a room at Tripler as the rat-tat-tat of the laser treatment machine erased one of his tattoos. He said the removal hurt a lot more than getting the tattoos, comparing it to hitting your thumb with a hammer, only about three times worse.

"It reminds you of your foolishness," he said with a smile.

He said he now tries to talk people out of getting tattoos.

Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Rosalynda Goodman likes her tattoos. She said she got her tattoos on her back and neck so she could cover them up when she doesn't feel like showing them.

Goodman gets some double-takes from patients when she assists with tattoo removal wearing her scrubs. The 20-year-old has a tattoo of the Latin phrase "carpe diem" on the back of her neck. When she's wearing her dress uniform, the tattoo is hidden.

She thinks the "seize the day" expression matches her personality. She doesn't see herself going through the pain and hassle of laser removal any time soon.

"I seriously thought about my tattoo before I got it," she said.

Reach Robbie Dingeman at rdingeman@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2429.