It's forever: Think before you ink

As an 18-year-old self-described "wild child," Maurie Sutton thought the tattoos of a bat, cat, and moon on her left shoulder were the height of cool. As a 36-year-old PhD candidate and mother? "Not good," she says.

For the past six months, Sutton has been undergoing laser treatment to remove the tattoos, a process she says is painful, but even more painfully expensive.

"It's probably going to cost me $1,500," she says, sighing at the irony that getting the tattoo cost her just $100.

After five laser treatments, Sutton's tattoo is nearly gone– only a faint trace of blue remains. But there's some pigmentation loss in the area, pigmentation her doctor, plastic surgeon Victoria Vastine, can't guarantee will return.

Other side effects from the laser treatment can include scarring, ulceration, and blistering, which Sutton suffered after her third treatment.

Though Vastine administers shots of Lidocaine prior to treatment, it can't prevent the laser from occasionally veering microscopically onto un-numbed flesh. The pain at those times, says Sutton, "is like the sting of 1,000 bees."

Sutton, it turns out, has had it fairly easy.

"Older tattoos" like Sutton's, says Vastine, "tend to respond more quickly and completely to laser treatment."

Newer tattoos, with their richer and denser colors, may require up to 20 lengthy laser sessions, and even then they may not respond well to laser treatment. For these cases, says Vastine, other removal options include dermabrasion, in which the tattoo is essentially sanded away over several sessions, and the more extreme option, surgery, in which the tattoo is actually cut out.

Vastine says her typical tattoo removal client had an "indiscretion of youth."

"They were younger, and it seemed like a good thing to do," she explains. They come to her office because their circumstances have changed. "The reality for a mature, responsible adult is different."

Sutton calls herself a "cautionary tale," and says the pain and potential for scarring are acceptable tradeoffs to get rid of a tattoo she's outgrown.

"I'd rather have a scar," she says, "than a tattoo that looks like a child scribbled it on."

Plastic surgeon Victoria Vastine uses a laser to remove the tattoo Maurie Sutton no longer wants.