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A Brief History of Tattoo Removal

February 7th, 2017 by Tattoo Removal in Tattoo Removal

Tattoos and tattoo removal have a long and interesting history.  The reasons for wanting them removed often every bit as personal and important as the reasons they were desired to begin with.  The art of permanently marking the skin with inks and dyes has been around longer than any existing culture today and have been found in ancient remains all around the globe.  The earliest recorded tattoo was found on a Peruvian mummy dating back to 6,000 BCE.

Today the most common reasons for tattoo regret include needing to have clean skin for a chosen career path, breaking up with a partner and wanting their name removed, being too young when choosing the tattoo and growing out of it, and the fickle nature of changing trends.  In the past tattoos were often a way of marking property, with the bearer of the tattoo getting inked unwillingly.  In sixth-century Mediterranean cultures in was commonplace to tattoo both slaves and soldiers to prevent runaways and desertion.  One of the oldest written descriptions of early tattoo removal attempts dates back to 543 CE where people marked against their will would have been eager to rid themselves of the enforced ink.

In the interest of brevity and the hopes of keeping readers awake, we will not be embarking on an in depth lecture regarding tattoo removal with a tedious question and answer session at the end of the discourse.  More a quick and dirty look at how we got from using pigeon excrement to Q-Switched lasers to rid our bodies of unwanted artworks and markings.  And yes, I really do wish I was making that up.  Pigeon ordure was genuinely used in attempts to remove tattoos.

With the first demonstration of a Q-Switched laser taking place in 1961, the technology we consider to be the gold standard in tattoo removal has only been commercially available since the early 1990’s.  Before the advent of Q-Switching a plethora of less effective, and often harmful, methods have been used to remove unwanted tattoos.  Techniques have included dermabrasion, salabrasion, acid peels, cryosurgery, excision, and injection or application of silicone solutions, wine, lime, garlic, beetle extract and as promised, pigeon poo.

There is evidence to suggest that abrasive methods of tattoo removal, such as salt and asbestos rubs, as well as excisions were used as far back as far as the Ancient Egyptians. Salabrasion is the process by which a coarse salt mixed with a little water is applied to the skin.  A gauze wrapped block is then used to abrade the skin until it is raw, taking about 30 – 40 minutes to rub through the outer layers of skin.  Modern techniques leave the open wound dressed with gauze and antibiotic cream for three days before applying salt to the raw, lacerated skin for several hours to draw the ink out.  After healing wrapped in gauze and antibiotic cream for a further three days, the wrappings are removed with the possibility of the abradee wishing they had saved up for laser tattoo removal instead of seeing the abrader.

Aetius’ writings from 543 CE conjure up a distinctly unpleasant and unhygienic vision of tattoo removal in Greco-Roman times.  Salt, however is still the common denominator by this time in tattoo removal history.

 ‘There follow two prescriptions, one involving lime, gypsum and sodium carbonate, the other pepper, rue and honey. When applying first clean the tattoos with nitre, smear them with resin of terebinth, and bandage for five days. On the sixth prick the tattoos with a pin, sponge away the blood, and then spread a little salt on the pricks, then after an interval…apply the aforesaid prescription and cover it with a linen bandage. Leave it on five days, and on the sixth smear on some of prescription with a feather. The tattoos are removed in twenty days…’

The feather, I am sure, is integral to the process.  What is less clear from the writings is if the feather needs to come from a fully laden swallow and if the airspeed velocity of said swallow makes a difference.

Remedies used by other physicians of the era included a poultice of pigeon excrement mixed with vinegar; or a one of garlic and the oil secreted by the blister beetle.

Fast forward through more than a century of salt and scarification to James Adair, a trader living among the people of the Chickasaw Nation in the 1740’s.  Adair reported tattoos of false battle victories were faded by “by stretching the marked parts, and rubbing them with the juice of green corn, which in a great degree took out the impression.”  Tattoos were to be worn with pride, as a record of a warrior’s triumphs.  Public humiliation and removal awaited anyone falsifying their conquests.

When, in the 1860’s, a band British pirates were busy pirateing their way through Spanish settlements as only pirates can, a gunpowder accident saw their surgeon, Wafer, unable to continue on.  Wafer was left to heal with the local peoples and during his time among them he noted their “delight” in marking their bodies with both temporary and permanent figures.  One of his companions, after receiving one of these permanent tattoos approached Wafer to remove it.  Wafer’s writings show that despite his skills as a surgeon, he could “not effectually” remove the marks, even “after much scarifying and fetching off a great part of the Skin.”

These rudimentary abrasive and acidic methods have moved on a little but are still in use today in new forms as well as old.  Dermabrasion, performed by a diamond wheel sanding away the epidermis, is often used as an updated abrasive technique to remove tattoos.  The internet is rife with advice on how to remove tattoos using salt.  It is also equally full of personal accounts and graphic pictures as to why this is a bad idea.  Cryogenics is used to freeze the area and then microdermabrasion used to remove the tattoo.  Fading creams containing acids that eat into human skin can be bought online and those without do little but cost the line the pockets of the seller.

Attempts at removing tattoos have recently been made by injecting a silicon solution under the skin in order to push the ink out.  And historically, thermal tissue cautery has been used to destroy the tattoo using fire, hot coals and electrical sparks.  At the opposite end of the spectrum, cryotherapy has also been used to try and freeze the ink out of tattoos with the results you would expect.  Usually none.

The beginnings of laser tattoo removal were also full of failed attempts.  CO<sup>2</sup>  lasers used in the 1980’s caused extreme pain and often resulted in scaring and permanent pigmentation issues.  Thankfully now, Q-Switched lasers are in mainstream use and tattoos can be removed, rarely resulting in unwanted side effects.

And there you have it.  A brief history of tattoo removal with more references to pigeon waste than you were expecting when you first embarked upon this journey.