When a tattoo gets under your skin: Carole wanted a butterfly on her back, like a 'Vogue' model, but she soon regretted it. Now it's the laser gun treatment. Rosie Millard reports

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Carole Carter sits in a GP's surgery in Bradford, dressed only in a bra and trousers. Dr Tim Callaghan is leaning over her naked back, directing a thin red beam which flashes out from a laser gun every few seconds on to her skin. A knocking sound rings round the surgery from the machine, and Mrs Carter winces with discomfort every time the beam pulses. Mrs Carter is having a tattoo removed from her back at the Laserase centre in Bradford.

Established in 1991 by the Bradford GP Colin Wright, this centre was one of the first surgeries in Britain to use laser treatment for the complete removal of tattoos. The facility, which is advertised on local radio and on buses in Bradford, has proved so popular that there is now a Laserase clinic, run by Dr Wright and his colleague Dr Callaghan, four evenings and two afternoons per week plus Saturday mornings.

''I had this tattoo done about 10 years ago in Soho,' gasps Mrs Carter, between pulses. 'It was by a man who said he did all the stars, Paula Yates and so on. I brought along this photo of a model in Vogue, where she had this lovely butterfly tattooed on her back. That's what I wanted done. He did the wings all right, but when he got to the body, he did a naked woman with these dreadful bare breasts. He only showed it to me after he'd finished. He said it had more character. Didn't he, Glen?'

Glen Carter, who has accompanied his wife, looks at the floor dejectedly. 'I thought she was mad all along,' he says, somewhat unhelpfully. 'But you know, it was in Vogue, and in fashion.'

'So to cover it up,' continues Mrs Carter, 'I went to a tattooist in Birmingham, who added a much bigger, blacker butterfly to the original one. It was better. But as time went by - well, quite quickly in fact, I realised I'd made a dreadful mistake.'

Dr Callaghan leans back for a brief break; lasering a tattoo is a very precise job. A sweet smell pervades the surgery. 'Smell that?' says Dr Callaghan 'That's burning flesh.'

The Laserase technique blasts the scar tissue which surrounds each drop of ink under the skin. By thus shattering the tattoo's protective surround, the ink is naturally dispersed by the body. The effect is a gradual fading of the tattoo as particles of ink are dissipated. Home-made tattoos, done with darning needles and Indian ink, will take about four sessions to erase; professional tattoos, upward of seven sessions.

Mrs Carter, who has, effectively, two tattoos on top of one another, will need about 15 bouts with the laser gun, one per month, before she has a clear back.

'I don't care,' she says. 'As long as I'm not put in my coffin with a tattoo on my back.'

'The commonest time to regret having a tattoo is in the first week of having it done,' says Dr Callaghan. 'I think people want to look different, or like a celebrity; but they aren't aware of the reaction it can bring from other people.'

Mrs Carter puts it more succinctly. 'Basically, I think it looks common. I have my hair cut by Nicky Clarke; I drive an pounds 80,000 Mercedes; and yet I have this tattoo. People see it and I can feel them wondering whether or not I take drugs.'

Until lasers were used, horror treatments for tattoo removal included returning to the tattooist and having acid injected under the skin. 'Most people's first port of call was the plastic surgeon, which in many ways is as drastic,' says Rory Shackleton, of Lasercare, a similar, medically approved service to Laserase with offices in London, Harrogate and Birmingham.

Lasercare offers tattoo removal, but can also lessen skin blemishes such as port-wine stains. The charge per session is about pounds 85, but Mr Shackleton advises that if you have a great number of tattoos to be eradicated an upper charge limit will be fixed to avoid bankruptcy. 'We are removing 90 square inches of tattoo from a man at the moment. He is paying around pounds 10,000; if it needs more after that, then he gets it free.'

Mrs Carter, who used to work with her husband in their York-based market research company until she could afford to give up working completely, is paying pounds 90 per session to eradicate her butterfly. However, for unemployed people who might have tattooed hands or faces, Dr Wright offers treatment free. 'It is a serious obstacle to getting work,' he says. 'These people may have had tattoos done when they were working on the ships, or down in the mines; places where tattoos are acceptable. But if they need a new form of employment, it's impossible. People simply don't trust you if they see you have a tattoo.'

As far as Mrs Carter is concerned, removing her tattoo has become her life's mission. 'I don't collapse in tears about it, but I am very angry,' she says. 'I think tattooists are highly irresponsible; people should have pre-tattoo counselling. Essentially, there should be more control on who has a tattoo. Let me sit down with anyone thinking of having one, and I'll tell them that I've honestly felt like cutting this out with a knife.

'When I was on holiday in Barbados, I would not walk around in a swimsuit. I just looked at all these women with their clear backs, and envied them.'

Dr Wright shows me a selection of the before-and-after photographs taken whenever a patient comes for treatment. 'Some people treat their skin like it was a piece of paper,' he remarks. We're looking at a picture of a woman's arm, which is scored and scribbled through with about 25 different names, hearts and dotted lines. Five photographs later, her arm is completely clear.

The files and photographs testify to tattoos of staggering variety and quality; barbed wire around the neck, dotted 'Cut 'ere' lines around wrists and foreheads, monsters bearing dripping meat cleavers, Daffy and Donald ducks, daggers and roses. Each set of photographs testifies to the tattoo fading out with a kind of Cheshire Cat resignation. No scars or marks are left, and there is no lasting alteration to skin pigmentation.

'We also treat people with tattoos on their genitalia,' says Dr Wright, with resignation. 'A woman had shaved her pubic region and had it tattooed; she was now married to someone who didn't know about the tattoo, but she wanted to shave her hair off again. We had to get rid of it under the hair. It was quite tricky, that one. She had to keep herself quite closely, um, trimmed.'

Yet the centre shows sympathy for people unhappily tattooed, however grotesquely. 'People often have no time for those who want to get rid of their tattoo,' says Dr Wright. 'They say it's a self-inflicted problem. I think that's wrong. These are human beings who made a bad decision and now want to do something about it. In the punk era, you could go around like a Mohican but look normal a few months later. It seems wrong that people can feel scarred for life, and no one is bothered.'

Dr Wright has already spent more than pounds 150,000 on the Laserase equipment and claims he is only making a modest profit. He has also helped to expand the Laserase network which now offers treatment in 17 different British cities.

'It'll be like a new life for me, once this tattoo is off my back,' says Mrs Carter, after her sixth monthly session is over. Her butterfly is flecked with white pearls of steam, coming up from underneath the skin. The whole area is red and slightly swollen.

'It'll blister and then it'll peel,' comments Mr Carter dourly.

'I don't care how much it costs,' says his wife. 'I might spend pounds 2,000 on an outfit I only wear a couple of times; yet this is with you for life. It's worth it.'

To find out about your the nearest Laserase Centre, call your local health authority or the Bradford centre on 0274 501000. Lasercare, 144 Harley Street, London 071-224 0988.

(Photograph omitted)

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