Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Getting It On... Taking It Off

By Eileen Loh-Harrist

JUNE 21, 1999:  "Ready? Here we go."

The high-pitched whine of an electric tattoo machine cuts through the routine bustle of Ramesses' Shadow Tattoos in the downtown Pinch district. Ann and Shane Clay have come to get one more tattoo each from owner Kevin Johnson before they move to Arizona.

Ann reclines on a padded table as Johnson etches a sun and a cluster of hearts above her left ankle. Flecks of blood sprout up, but Ann, who has five other tattoos, remains nonplussed. "It just feels hot."

She and Johnson designed the tattoo, a memorial to the Clays' stillborn baby. "I think it's more personal than letting go of balloons or lighting candles," Ann says.

For Ann and Shane, a tattoo is more than skin-deep -- it's an external, visual link to their inner selves. The Clays marked their engagement not with a ring but with matching tattoos. "There's still a stigma to it," Ann says. "People think you're either a hard-core biker or out of prison."

For Johnson, 32, tattooing is an artistic outlet, so much so that he does not offer his customers pre-drawn designs. "The majority of shops are like that that's all they do, pretty much. Tracing," Johnson says, disparagingly. "There's no creativity there."

In his store, clients bring a design, or an idea, or just a rambling philosophy of life -- and a tattoo is born. In some cases, the artists draw free-style on the body. Not for the timid, but customers swear by it. "I'm a walking billboard for Kevin," says Shane, 30.

"I kind of build them on the skin," says Johnson, who co-owns Ramesses' Shadow with his brother Shannon. "A lot of times I don't know exactly what it's going to be before I start it."

Their other three tattooists are Memphis College of Art graduates or students. The Johnsons require that apprentices be promising novices with portfolios. "They can't have any previous tattoo experience. That way, we can mess their minds up ourselves," Johnson jokes.

Shannon, 29, also ditched commercial art for the tattoo business. "What better gallery to have than someone walking around, where everyone can see your work?"

A variety of Memphians sport their designs. "We get 'em all," Johnson says. "I had a guy who came in here who was in Bible school, studying to be a preacher." He got the Superman crest.

It's an unlikely medium for the Johnsons, who themselves have no tattoos (nor does a third artist). They have received inkless tattoos, "so we can tell our customers how it feels," Shannon says.

"To prove we're not sissies!" Kevin adds.

How does it feel? Responses include "annoying," "irritating," and "burning," and location matters. Places where there isn't much fat -- the knees, neck, rib cage, lower back -- are most sensitive.

"The outline, to me, is the worst," Ann says. "It hurts. It's not real real painful, but it feels like if you get a needle and scrape it across your skin. The coloring usually doesn't hurt."

It works like this: The artist attaches a disposable ink reservoir and needle to the tattoo machine. Magnets make the needle vibrate up and down, pushing ink particles too large for the immune system to carry away, deep into the skin. The artist draws the outline first, shades it, then adds color.

In this business, health issues abound. Johnson, who calls his shop "the cleanest you'll find," believes tattoo regulations could be stricter.

"In Tennessee, it's legal to take your needles, clean them, re-autoclave them, and use them again," he says. "That makes it sterile, but you're still left with a duller needle." In Shelby County, you must be at least 18 to get a tattoo in a licensed shop. There's one exception: to cover up existing gang-related tattoos. The Johnsons hold occasional clinics where they conceal gang symbols for free.

Tattoo artists get to know their clients very intimately -- not just because of the designs they choose, but their locations. Johnson has tattooed every part of the body except the eyes. "It's all skin," he says. "As long as it's in the name of art, it's okay."

Not that he hasn't cringed at some of the places people decide to have tattooed. "It hurts me more than it hurts them," says Johnson, who jokes that "you do get to know everyone's true hair color!"

Other things they don't teach in art school: If skin is your canvas, make sure its owner hasn't been drinking. "It makes you bleed, thins your blood out," Johnson says. "They can get lit after they're done."

Another important lesson for a tattooist? Check spelling. Johnson recalls one customer who wanted "PSYCHOPATH" emblazoned across his chest. But the man omitted the middle "H" in his design, and Johnson obligingly drew it that way. "I tell people, you'd better know how to spell! If you're relying on me, don't."

Finally, what every tattooist should know: the one thing you never say while applying a tattoo


Taking It Off

For years, Teresa Camp longed to wear tank tops, bikinis, or just a cute nightie.

But whenever she tried on revealing summer clothing, there they were: the homemade tattoos Camp, 25, had come to hate. Constant, obnoxious reminders of a rebellious teen phase.

"I got my first one when I was 13 years old. Half my life. I turned into a teenager and decided I'd get a tattoo. Everyone in my neighborhood was getting them."

Using a needle, thread and India ink, Camp's siblings and friends left their mark in nearly a dozen designs all over her body. "When I was about 17 I started resenting the tattoos, because I'd be trying to get a job, and they'd see a tattoo of a Playboy bunny on my hand," she says.

"I was really ashamed of them. Honestly, they looked like jailhouse tattoos, and they just represented something I'm not."

In 1994, Camp asked a laser surgeon in Alabama to remove three tattoos on her hands and forearm. He removed them, all right -- along with chunks of skin.

"Basically, he fried my arm," says Camp, who wasn't sure what she hated worse -- the tattoos or the scars. "I never thought I'd go to another dermatologist again."

But last year Camp met laser surgeon Michael Bond, who promised better results with new technology. After eight sessions, six of her tattoos are now extremely light, with at least one that's invisible to close scrutiny.

The "Medlite 4" lasers use soundwaves, not skin-burning heat. They break up the ink granules embedded in the dermis, or the base of the skin, letting the immune system sweep away the smaller ink particles. Several sessions are usually necessary to remove a tattoo, and in some cases a faint, bluish outline of the tattoo will remain.

People want tattoos gone for several reasons. "You have a lot of people who get married and the spouse doesn't like it, or they have a new job where the tattoo is not appreciated," Bond says. "Or they're getting rid of a name of someone they're no longer involved with."

Many patients want old tattoos lightened so they can get another in the same area. Or, they've simply outgrown the designs they chose years ago.

Bond says his male patients usually want to remove 10- or 15-year-old tattoos. Women are different. "Usually, an average of about three months is when women say, 'I really want them off,'" Bond says.

"Today, the overwhelming majority of people tell me the day they got their tattoo is the day they wanted to get it off!"

It's not the tattoos themselves, says Bond, who calls some of the work he's seen "museum pieces."

"Most of the tattoos that come in here are really beautiful pieces of artwork," he says. "I've developed an intense appreciation for the artistry of what these people are doing."

Today, Rachel Rhoads, 20, of Cordova is visiting Bond's Hickory Hill office for the first time, to remove the initials of someone with whom she is no longer intimate. She's in a new relationship, she explains, and now that it's bathing suit season, she wants to avoid the questions raised by those initials.

Because the tattoo on Rhoads' hip is small, Bond uses a topical cream to numb the area. Larger tattoos sometimes require an injection of lidocaine.

Everyone in the room dons protective goggles, and Rhoads lies on an exam table. Bond holds a laser wand over the initials, and -- SNAP! A flash of light accompanies the sound. The patient shrieks.

The sensation isn't so much painful as surprising, she explains. "I just wasn't expecting that."

"We have literally exploded the pigment granules in the skin," Bond says. "If I shine the laser beam over another part of the skin that doesn't have a tattoo" -- he demonstrates this on Rhoads -- "you won't feel anything."

The technology uses four separate laser wavelengths, which work on specific ink colors, so what's effective for red won't necessarily do anything for blue. The hardest color to remove, according to Bond, is white. Dark colors are easiest.

Five minutes later, after a series of pops and sparks, the tattoo seems to have bubbled to the skin's surface. Tiny blood vessels have broken out, and the skin around the tattoo is red and puffy. "It doesn't hurt any more than getting a tattoo," Rhoads points out.

She won't be back for another six weeks or so, to allow the skin time to heal.

Erasing a tattoo isn't cheap, but for the recently un-tattooed Camp, her new freedom is worth her $200-per-session fee. "I felt not sexy because I had all these tattoos, and now I can just be me," she says.

"If I want to wear a bikini, I can wear a bikini I'm wearing all the short sleeves and low-cuts I can find now. It's just wonderful."

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