She was walking with a pack of girlfriends along the strip, feeling impulsive and “a little tipsy,” when a flashing red neon sign started screaming at her.
With no thought and about 30 bucks tucked into her shorts, Rodgers stumbled inside.
“Right that second, I knew I was getting a tattoo,” she said, eight years later. “I didn’t even know what to get. I just wanted something that would remind me of that trip … of being young and not worrying about anything.”
Rodgers was also in love. Her boyfriend of two years had decided to stay in Jacksonville rather than come with her to the beach.
“I missed him so much,” she remembered, sounding more than a little embarrassed. “And nothing else on the walls did much for me, so I figured … why not?”
Rather than getting a dolphin on her bikini line, or a ladybug on her big toe, Rodgers decided to get her boyfriend’s initials — “JMG” — tattooed in cursive letters around the ring finger of her left hand … yep, that finger, right where a wedding ring should go.
Trouble was, the wedding ring wouldn’t come from “JMG.”
“We broke up that summer,” Rodgers said. “He was cheating on me. Talk about a nasty reminder of being young and stupid.”
That’s exactly how Brooke Hunter, a veteran tattoo artist of 20 years, describes it.
“The most stupid decision in tattooing is getting someone’s name — unless it’s your child,” said Hunter, who currently works at Lincoln Ink in Lincoln. “Love is temporary, but tattoos last forever.
“I’ve personally talked people out of getting names. It’s not like I’m a cynic, but I know what’ll eventually happen. They’ll come back into my shop, or somewhere else, and want to get it covered up.
“Happens every time.”
There are roughly 45 million people in America with at least one tattoo. For some, it’s a personal statement. Others appreciate the artwork and skill of the artists. Some enjoy the rush of the pulsating needle burrowing into skin. Others view it as an act of rebellion or a rite of passage.
Tattoos are featured on TV shows and celebrities, leaving little doubt that they’re more socially acceptable.
“It is becoming mainstream and is now called ‘body art,’ which gives a more positive perception than the term ‘tattoo,’” said Lola Johnston, career services specialist in Jacksonville State University’s Office of Career Services.
The downside to popularity is that mistakes and poor choices are bound to be made. In 2005, the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology reported that, of the 24 percent of Americans with a tattoo, 17 percent had considered having it removed, while 5 percent had it covered with a different design.
“A lot of our business comes from cover-ups,” said a locally legendary tattoo artist known as Turtle, who’s been tattooing at Artistic Addiction in Anniston for four years. “As for names … that’s job security. Never ever get a boyfriend or girlfriend’s name tattooed. That’ll guarantee it’ll end, and end badly.”
Failed romances aren’t the sole reason for tattoo regret. Though young people rarely think of consequences when sitting in a studio chair bracing themselves against the stabbing rhythm of the tattoo needle, future employers might not look so fondly on visible tattoos, Johnston said.
“If you do get a tattoo, I suggest getting one that is easily covered so it will not be a problem adhering to any future company dress codes or policies,” she said.
Of course, teenagers aren’t known for thinking ahead.
“I rarely hear of tattoo regrets,” Johnston said. “But keep in mind that I work with students. Regrets may come much later in life.”
No easy fix
Aside from cover-ups, there are various methods of tattoo removal.
• Laser tattoo removal is the most effective way to go, but it’s not covered by most health insurance plans and can cost upward of $400 per treatment. It usually requires between eight and 10 treatments. The pain is often severe.
• Trichloroacetic acid (TCA) is basically a chemical peel, based on a popular non-prescription acid commonly used by doctors and health spas to treat skin conditions. It usually comes as a clear liquid that is applied to the skin with a cotton swab. TCA has been medically tested twice, and is proven to fade and/or remove tattoos.
• Many tattoo removal creams contain hydroquinone, which is usually the active ingredient in skin bleaching creams. Over-the-counter sales of skin-bleaching creams containing hydroquinone are banned in the United Kingdom, France, Australia, Japan and several other countries, because hydroquinone is known to cause cancer and a debilitating skin disease called exogenous ochronosis. The FDA has proposed a similar ban in the United States.
“There is no such thing as perfect, pain-free tattoo removal,” according to the website TattooFinder.com. “Most tattoos are never 100 percent removed, and there is usually some skin discoloration. If you try to take out every last bit of a tattoo, there will likely be scarring. It is possible to get most of the tattoo out to a point that it’s no longer recognizable as a tattoo, and may be easily covered with a little foundation or a new tattoo.”
A colorful, full-back cover-up
The best way to avoid tattoo remorse is to avoid getting a bad tattoo.
Too often, people walk into a tattoo shop without having a clear idea of what they want, or what to expect from their artist.
Some advice: Don’t just flip through the tattoos hanging from the wall. Ask to see the artist’s personal books, which will show actual tattoos they’ve done. Make sure the shop is clean, and that you’re treated with respect.
“I counsel people,” Turtle said. “I want people to relax, to think about what they’re doing. Those ‘no thought’ tattoos are nothing but trouble. Those are the ones people are eventually going to regret.”
Dina Lawson knows that regret. In 1998, she walked into an Anniston tattoo shop (now closed) carrying a picture of an English fairy she wanted tattooed on her right leg.
“I believe in fairies,” explained Lawson, now 38 and a nursing student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “I’ve got a serious Irish heritage, and that’s what I wanted my first tattoo to be.”
She ended up with “a total mess.” Lawson’s fairy was little more than a colorful blob with wings and spindly legs. She lived with it for a while, until she met Brooke Hunter, who was working at Riverside Tattoo Studio in Oxford at the time. Hunter reworked the tattoo and brought the original to life.
“It’s an amazing job,” Lawson said of her fairy, the first of numerous tattoos. “It turned something embarrassing into something I can be proud of.”
When Lawson decided to get another tattoo covered up, she went to Hunter. She had a fairy on her back that she wanted covered up with a large, intricate tattoo of the Hindu goddess Ganesha.
“I was going through a lot of pain and disappointment at the time, and I wanted to do something that would help me to move forward in my life and in my career,” Lawson said. “Ganesha is the remover of obstacles, and I was having trouble with financial aid. Three days after Brooke finished the outline, I got a letter saying that my application had been approved.
“When people ask, ‘Why Ganesha?’ I say, ‘Ganesha’s got my back.”
When Earnhardt changed numbers
Jason Conyers loves NASCAR. More to the point, he’s a huge fan of Dale Earnhardt Jr. So much so that, in 2006, he decided to get a tattoo of Junior’s famous number “8” tattooed on his left shoulder, engulfed by clouds of smoke and flames.
Conyers got the tattoo in Birmingham. The tattoo artist tried to talk Conyers out of such a permanent sign of loyalty, because there’s nothing predictable about sports.
“But I had my heart set,” Conyers said. “It was that or an elephant from the University of Alabama. Turns out I probably should’ve gotten the elephant.”
In 2008, Earnhardt changed racing teams and numbers — going from “8” to “88” — leaving a world of racing fans scratching their heads and at least one wishing the tattoo on his shoulder would rub off.
Conyers went back to the same shop to try and get the “8” fixed, but his artist was gone. So he chose someone else at random. The results were less than inspired.
“You can tell that I just had another ‘8’ stuck in there. To really make it look right, I’d have to get a full cover-up with something altogether different,” he said. “It was my mistake, so I’m just going to live with it for now.”
As for Renee Rodgers, she’s married now — though not to “JMG.” She still lives in Jacksonville, and her husband of three years isn’t the jealous kind. She’s got a total of seven tattoos, none of which can be easily seen.
As for those fateful initials, Rodgers had them covered up right after she got engaged. Nothing fancy, just a wide black band. She only notices it when she’s washing dishes.
“Sometimes, I forget it’s there and, thinking it’s dirt, I’ll try and scrub it off before realizing, ‘Oh, yeah!’” Rodgers said. “Everybody makes mistakes. Mine’s just a bit more … visible.
“And it’ll never really go away.”
Contact Brett Buckner at email@example.com