Angelica Keene of Kihei wanted to join the Navy. But there was one small problem—located behind her ear. It was a tattoo, a Zodiac symbol, that violated military policy. “The only thing holding me back was that tattoo,” says Keene.
She looked into removal options, but found that she’d have to spend hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars. That’s when she saw a flier offering free laser tattoo removal for Hawaii residents with unwanted ink on their hands and faces. Soon, Keene and her recruiter were headed to Electric Eel Tattoo in Lahaina for a session with co-owner Chris Takhvar and his laser.
Now, Keene says, she’s a visit or two away from being rid of her tat and in the Navy. “It’s a wonderful thing that he’s doing,” she says.
Takhvar, who’s been tattooing for more than a decade and has lived on Maui sporadically for eight years, opened Electric Eel at the end of 2008 with business partner Holly Doddridge. Doddridge, he says, had a vision to do more than body art; she wanted to offer a service “that [could] change lives.”
Using money she inherited from her late mother, Doddridge helped Takhvar purchase a YAG selective pigment displacement laser, valued at about $10,000. “She wanted to do something in remembrance of her mom,” says Takhvar. “Not a statue or a memorial, but something that’s active and continuous and constantly helping people. It’s part of our aloha.”
As someone who gives tattoos for a living, Takhvar recognizes that sometimes people don’t want them forever—circumstances change, priorities get reordered. “This can affect career choices, who’s going to rent to you, who’s going to sell you a car—every aspect of life, really,” he says.
Takhvar says he recently worked on a young man hoping to become a Navy SEAL who had an ace of spades tattooed on his hand. “Some computer said that was a Filipino gang [symbol] in Fresno or something,” says Takhvar. “He was like, ‘I’ve never even been to Fresno,’ but they told him he had to take the spade off. So we did.”
In addition to military recruits, Takhvar says he’s seen people trying to rise above their checkered past. “We had one gal who’d [been] through drug rehab,” he remembers. “She had about fifteen tattoos on her hands. She looked like a scratch pad—it was really bad.” Takhvar says the woman just completed her second session and that he can already see a big change. “She looks so much prettier, so much more alive,” he says. “She’s rid of this ball and chain she kind of cursed herself with.”
Takhvar says he’s removed prison tattoos, and has also seen a lot of “home poke” jobs. One thing he hasn’t touched is traditional Polynesian and Native Hawaiian tattoos—and he says he’d be hesitant to do so. “It’s almost considered an insult to offer to remove cultural tattoos,” he says. “I’m not trying to insult anyone. I value the culture out here and how rich it is. For some people, this is part of their heritage and I respect that.”
But, he adds, facial tattoos in particular carry a stigma, fair or not. “You won’t get very far in the larger world with these tattoos, unfortunately,” he says.
Laser tattoo removal targets and breaks up the ink pigment but usually causes minimal damage to the surrounding skin. Different lasers are effective on different kinds of ink. Black and dark blue inks are the easiest to remove, while colored and light, skin-toned inks tend to be more difficult.
How much does it hurt? It’s been variously described as the sting of a rubber band snap or the burn of spattering grease. Keene says the procedure is “a little more painful than having your tattoo done.” But, she adds with a laugh, “it’s better than getting your skin cut out.”
Because of its effectiveness, the popularity of laser removal has grown along with the popularity of tattoos. At the same time, a debate has sprung up over who’s qualified to operate the lasers. Some dermatologists and health officials say laser removal is a medical procedure and should be left to doctors.
Keene admits she was initially concerned about having the procedure done by a non-physician. But, she says, Takhvar quickly put her at ease. “He knows exactly what he’s doing, [he’s] very professional,” she says.
Takhvar acknowledges that, if used improperly, the laser can be “a damaging tool.” But, then again, so can a tattoo needle. The keys, he says, are taking the proper precautions—safety goggles to avoid eye damage, thorough cleaning and treatment—and experience.
“I’m not going to say I’m a doctor, but with the level of knowledge I have [from] my career, I probably know as much or more about the skin than some doctors,” says Takhvar. He says none of the people who’ve come in for removals have suffered any serious side effects or scarring.
For now, Takhvar and others who want to take up laser removal are free to do so under the law—or, rather, lack of law. There are no federal regulations for non-ionizing radiation (which also includes things like laser hair removal and tanning beds), meaning it’s left up to the states. Currently, the Hawaii Department of Health oversees only ionizing radiation such as X-rays and CT-scans. “We really don’t have jurisdiction,” says Jeffrey Eckerd, a supervisor in the DOH’s radiation division.
Eckerd says draft regulations for non-ionizing radiation have been brought up in the past, but that right now they’re “on the back burner.”
Even if restrictive rules are one day put in place, Takhvar hopes he’ll be grandfathered in. Eckerd says that’s possible, but not guaranteed. “Usually there is some sort of grandfathering involved, but it would be addressed specifically when rules are drafted and public hearings are [held],” he says.
As long as it’s legal, Takhvar says he’ll continue to offer the service. He hopes to acquire another laser so he can work on a wider range of tattoos.
“In some cases, a tattoo is like a scar,” he says. “If people made a bad decision, we want to help them reverse that.” MTW