President Ahlburg on tattoos: what they won’t tell you at the parlor

In case you were too busy to read the Wall Street Journal on September 18, you missed a story about something that 22 percent of college students have: a tattoo. What you missed is equally relevant to the 22 percent of you who have a tattoo and to the 78 percent of you who do not.

I estimate that there are a minimum of 528 tattoos (some of you may have got carried away and have more than one. Maybe you were in the parlor the day the two-for-one special was running) currently being displayed (or not) on campus by students. An undisclosed number (which generally stay that way) are “owned” by faculty and staff.

So what, you might ask. As an economist, I believe that markets work well when consumers have the information they need to make informed decisions. I do not believe this is the case with tattoos. I think that anyone considering getting a tattoo should be in full possession of the facts before they take the plunge.

OK, here is the study: based on a 15-year study of tattoo wearers recently published in the American Medical Association’s Archives of Dermatology (and reported in the Wall Street Journal. I don’t habitually read the Archives of Dermatology but, for my sins, I do read the Journal), at some point about half of those on campus sporting tattoos will decide that that remarkably cool tattoo that looks so good today doesn’t quite have the staying power you anticipated (buyer’s remorse). Now, today’s tattoos are not as easily removed as the ones you peeled off as a kid. Today’s beauties take at minimum often laser treatments to remove. Each treatment costs $2000 and is not covered by insurance. But even worse news is that after you spend $2,000 more than half of you will still have a tattoo but it will no longer look so cool.

You will have a partially removed tattoo with prominent greens, yellows and blues remaining because they are much harder to remove. In fact, according to the study, the chances of removing yellow, blue and pink are near zero. If you are lucky, you chose basic black which can be successfully removed in 58 percent of cases. Those pretty colors just want to stay with you forever to remind you of your lost youth … or lost dollars. If 10 treatments don’t separate you from your tattoo, shelling out $3000 for 15 laser treatments increases the percentage of successful removals to 75 percent. But what if you are in that persistent 25 percent? Get ready to wear long pants and long sleeves, forever.

So what is a tattooed student to do? First, quit smoking, because smoking decreases by 70 percent the chance of successfully removing your lovely body art. Second, decide how much you love that tattoo. The longer you keep it, the harder it is to remove it. Third, pray for new technology and that it comes soon. Some new experimental lasers can remove tattoos in fewer treatments.

So, that’s what they didn’t tell you in the tattoo parlor. And that’s why you have a university president. My job (in part) is to tell you stuff you don’t want to hear or that your parents or ex-hippy Uncle Nate would have told you if they had the opportunity (which they didn’t because what college student consults their parents about something so personal as body art?). So hear this: if you don’t have a tattoo, think long and hard before you get one (and reread the above) or get one of those terrific paste -on ones that looked so cool when you were six years old. If you really can’t live without a little ink, remember, small is beautiful, and basic black has a lot going for it. Also putting it where a future employer can’t see it is wise.

Dennis Ahlburg is the president of Trinity University.