Tattoos are becoming extremely common. I do not mean some little symbol discreetly placed on a small part of the body but even massive ones that cover much of it. I do not have a tattoo and have no intention of ever getting one, since I belong to a generation (and grew up in a country) in which no one I knew got tattoos. To the extent that one read about who got them, it was mainly sailors in western countries who, like Popeye, got clichéd ones with anchors or hearts with arrows through them or women’s names. The creepy 1969 film The Illustrated Man based on the Ray Bradbury story collection of that name may have cemented my antipathy to them.
I simply do not see the point of tattoos. While all of us make some effort to improve our appearance artificially, such as putting makeup or cutting and combing our hair, these are all temporary things that can be reversed quite easily, either immediately or over a short period of time. Not so with tattoos. They are not only painful to get, they are very difficult to remove.
I assume that people get tattoos because they think it improves their appearance or they are making some kind of statement. But I know someone my age who recently got a small tattoo on the small of his back where not only does no one else see it, except an intimate partner, but they themselves cannot see it. This must fill some psychological need.
I used to think that though painful to get, tattoos were benign once you got them. But this article by Greg Hall, a professor at my home institution Case Western Reserve University, says that this is not the case and that regret over getting a tattoo is high.
Almost half of people between 18 and 35 have tattoos, and almost one in four regrets it, according to a 2016 Harris Poll. Based on an estimate of about 60 million people in that age group, that would mean that about 7.5 million people have tattoo regret.
What I found was myriad unexpected and sometimes shocking concerns that everyone should know. To my surprise, there were a host of reports of ink complications, infections, toxin effects, scarring, burns, chronic irritations and much more.
Hall goes on to list all manner of other deleterious effects that arise from tattoos due to the presence of carcinogens in 83% of the black ink, the most popular color, as well as the presence of barium, copper, mercury and other unsafe components.
There is also the risk of infections during the tattooing process.
The most common infections associated with tattooing involve staphylococcus aureus or pseudomonas bacteria arising from poor skin preparation or equipment sterilization. “Staph” skin infections can become serious and even life-threatening, as antibiotic-resistant strains become more prevalent.
Three percent of tattoos get infected, and almost four percent of people who get tattoos recount pain lasting more than a month, a 2015 study from Tulane University School of Medicine found. About 22 percent of participants with new tattoos reported persistent itching that lasted more than a month.
More serious tattoo-induced skin disorders like sarcoidosis, lichen planis and lupus-like reactions are increasingly reported in current literature. These skin problems can be more long-lasting and leave permanent scarring.
A study reported in Hepatology found that “tattoo exposure is associated with HCV (hepatitis C virus) infection, even among those without traditional risk factors. All patients who have tattoos should be considered at higher risk for HCV infection and should be offered HCV counseling and testing.”
He points out that the removal process involving lasers also carries risks.
Because the laser shatters the pigment particles under the skin for removal by the body, the issues with infections, scarring and the ink spreading become a concern again. Tattoos covering extensive areas of the body are simply too large to tackle in one session, and could take years to remove.
Laser complications include pain, blistering, scarring and, in some cases, a darkening of the tattoo ink can occur, according to dermatologists.
I can tell you that if there was the remotest possibility that I would get a tattoo, this article pretty much killed it. To me it seems like the highly nebulous benefits of tattoos do not outweigh the real risks. But maybe it is because I am an old fogey who has never cared that much about making a statement using my appearance alone.