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Though you can’t see it, the invisible beam of laser light hitting Jodi Taylor’s skin a couple of times a second is audible enough: a sharp, sparkplug ZAP! that sounds like the repeat of a miniature Buck Rogers disintegrator pistol. The result is almost as striking. As the laser moves over her tattoo — a wild horse, galloping across her ankle — every ZAP! makes the skin rise in a tiny white dot.
Like many people who come in for laser removal, Taylor has simply outgrown her tattoo — something that once spoke to her strongly enough that she had it printed on her skin. Now a young mother from Malvern, more interested in wearing skirts to school functions than youthful expression, she’s ready to be rid of her permanent pony.
“I got it when I was 22,” she said. “It seemed like a good idea then, because I had horses and I was into horses. But now, I work in consulting, and I’m a mom. It just seems kind of tacky.”
The man behind the laser is Dr. Jay Kincannon, a dermatologist at UAMS. One of Arkansas’s foremost experts on making tattoos disappear, Kincannon has been doing laser removals for 12 years.
Though older tattoo-removal options like excision (cutting it out) and dermabrasion (sanding it off) are still around, for larger tattoos or tattoos in delicate areas, laser removal is the best option. Kincannon said the lasers he uses can be tuned to interact only with certain colors in a tattoo (for black inks, like the outline of Taylor’s horse, the light is invisible to the naked eye).
“The pulse of light goes through the skin and it’s not absorbed by anything else — the water, the collagen, the epidermis,” he said. “But once it sees the red of the tattoo ink, it’s absorbed (by the pigment) and it changes from light to heat. The heat actually destroys the pigment so the pigment bursts.”
Once the individual molecules of pigment are destroyed, the body’s immune system comes in and cleans up the debris.
Though the patient is generally numbed up before the procedure begins, Taylor and others said that the individual pulses of light are no more painful than someone popping the skin lightly with a rubber band. Unless the treatment is particularly heavy, scarring is usually minimal, though sometimes there might be some pinpoint bleeding from the area after the treatment. With large tattoos, there can be thinning of the skin. If a patch of skin has been repeatedly tattooed, it is sometimes impossible to get all the ink out.