Got unwanted ink? Laser removal business fades tattoo woes

TARENTUM, Pa. (AP) — Amber Halliwell regrets not eating more the day she got her second tattoo.

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The 28-year-old Parks Township woman suspects low blood sugar might have contributed to her passing out during that session with an inexperienced tattoo artist about a decade ago, shortly after she turned 18 and two years after she became a firefighter.

When she woke, her lower right leg was adorned with the Maltese Cross badge of protection that she'd said she wanted — along with something she definitely did not. The artist apparently took the liberty of drawing a peculiar design of his own creation to go inside the firefighting symbol: a messy, angry face with red eyes and red, menacing teeth.

For years, Halliwell lived begrudgingly with what she referred to as a "monstrosity" — until it became clear just how much her children hated it, too. She recalled the time her toddler son was clinging playfully to her ankle when he made eye contact with the tattoo and got so frightened that he fell to the floor.

"Scary face!" she recalled the boy calling out.

Halliwell, now a mother of four, finally decided to do something about her unwanted ink this summer.

To get started, she turned to Elimination Station — a budding small business in Tarentum that specializes in laser tattoo fading and removal.

WHERE YOUR INK, WORRIES 'FADE AWAY'

A botched tattoo job is among dozens of reasons people make laser removal appointments at the former doctor's office space on Fourth Avenue between Allegheny and Corbet streets, according to Rochelle Pommer, Elimination Station's owner and primary technician.

In other cases, people may have once liked a tattoo but grew sick of it, or tattooed something that no longer has the same meaning or significance that it once did, said Pommer, whose passion for the business was sparked by her own desire to remove an unwanted tattoo.

"We have people who got a name or an anniversary date, and they're no longer with that significant other," said Pommer. "We have people who got the tattoo that they wanted, it just wasn't the quality they wanted."

Popular requests include the removal of engagement or wedding rings tattooed to fingers, as well as unwanted tattoos on necks and faces, particularly near the eyes.

"A lot of people have gotten them when they're younger, and now they're trying to get jobs and they're realizing, 'Oh, they're not hiring me because I have a spider or a pot leaf on my face,' " Pommer said. "Those ones are the most rewarding ones because it is literally giving people a second chance."

Demand has been picking up at Elimination Station over the past several months, buoyed by social media campaigns that appeal to humor and promote discounts and specials. Pommer, who opened the business in mid-2016, said she served about 150 clients last year and is on track to reach closer to 250 this year.

Sometimes clients would rather not divulge the story behind their unwanted ink — which is fine by Pommer, who doesn't ask questions unless the customer shares first.

"This is as judgment-free zone," Pommer said. "I don't care what you have, where you have it, why you're getting rid of it, I just want to help you."

HOW TATTOO LASER REMOVAL WORKS

On a recent afternoon, Halliwell arrived at beige brick enclosed business complex on Fourth Avenue, walked inside the Elimination Station suite and was greeted by Pommer. A dish of Dove sea-salted chocolates sat atop the wooden reception desk amid a small waiting area and paintings of cacti and earthy tones.

"I wanted a laid-back, down-to-earth atmosphere where people could just come and feel comfortable," said Pommer, who renovated the space last year with help from her husband, a home construction worker and real estate investor.

After taking care of some paperwork, Pommer explained how the laser removal process works and what Halliwell should expect.

"The laser actually heats up the ink particles in your skin and, then, they burst," Pommer said. "The better your immune system is, the faster it'll fade."

Inside the laser removal treatment room, three side-by-side signs spell out a saying to soothe nervous clients: "Breathe in. Breathe out. Repeat."

Pommer handed Halliwell a pair of yellow-tinted sunglasses to shield her eyes and a lime-green squishy stress ball to squeeze for relief.

The laser machine, which Pommer purchased from the Houston, Texas, center where she became certified, emitted a bright green light and high-pitched clicking and buzzing noises as Pommer traced over the unwanted tattoo in back-to-back treatments, first targeting the black ink and then the color.

Pommer compares the feel of the laser to a rubber band snapping repeatedly against the skin.

The process typically takes less than two minutes.

Large tattoos can need up to five minutes of the laser, whereas small ones need only 30 seconds, Pommer said.

"Afterwards, it feels like a sunburn for a few days," Pommer said.

Sometimes clients ask to fade only part of a tattoo, while clients like Halliwell want the entire thing erased. The process typically takes from eight to 10 sessions to remove a tattoo completely, depending on its size. Each session must be spaced out at least six weeks apart.

Costs start at $75 for a tattoo smaller than a business card; $150 for the size of a postcard; $250 for the size of a half-sheet of paper and $350 or more for full sleeves and large back tattoos.

"Wow, that was like really fast," Halliwell said. "I thought they say tattoos are permanent. Well, apparently they're not, and getting rid of them takes less time than getting them."

Among Pommer's next goals is to partner with nonprofit organizations and offer low-cost or free tattoo removals to convicted felons who are re-entering society, and for victims of human trafficking and sex crimes.

She's also eager to see her corner of the Alle-Kiski Valley and fellow small businesses continue to grow.

"I love being in this area. Personally, I think that Tarentum has so much potential," said Pommer, who lives in Kittanning. "I keep telling my husband, this place is going to explode, I know it is . There are boarded up buildings and there are some areas that aren't so nice, but the architecture is so beautiful, and I think the potential is so high here."

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