On a busy afternoon
and Saints tattoo
shop on South
Highland Avenue in Shadyside, there is a
distinct hum. It’s the whirr of electric needles
pulsing at 15 times a second from what are
essentially modified doorbell buzzers—a
technology using electromagnets that has
remained the same since the 1800s.
Five full-time tattoo artists concentrate
on their work while chatting with their
clients who have selected a piece of artwork
for display on their hand, arm, chest, shoulder,
back, or elsewhere. By pressing on a foot
pedal, the artists control their needles that will deliver the ink about one millimeter
below the surface of the skin.
The shop is well known for its active
walk-in business and famous regulars.
Rapper Wiz Khalifa, a Pittsburgh
Allderdice graduate, stops by frequently
with his entourage and has most of his
work done by tattoo artist Mad Max and
owner Todd Porter. And hip-hop superstar
Mac Miller from Point Breeze sat with Mad
Max for a John Lennon portrait on his right
arm and with Michael Monack (aka the
elusive and acrobatic graffiti writer Mook)
to have his birth year in Roman numerals
put on his hand.
Sinners and Saints and our other seemingly
countless local tattoo shops are all
part of the $1.65 billion tattoo industry.
Right: At Sinners and Saints in Shadyside, Michael Monack applies a tattoo to a customer.
Some 45 million Americans—an estimated
one in five adults—have at least one tattoo,
according to the Pew Research Center.
Clearly they’ve gone mainstream; even
Barbie now has tattoos.
“I’ve tattooed everybody from drug dealers
and gangsters to teachers at Winchester
Thurston, cheerleaders, engineering majors,
murderers, brain surgeons, and everything in
between,” Monack says. “It’s such a broad
spectrum, it’s insane.”
A 2012 Harris poll determined—perhaps
surprisingly—that 86 percent of people
with tattoos have never regretted their
decision; the poll says tattoos make people
feel sexy, attractive, strong, spiritual, and
But what if Mom was right when she
said you’d rue that fire-breathing dragon that
snakes up your back and curls its red flames
around your bicep? Or what if you and
Amanda aren’t in love forever after all,
despite what it says on your forearm?
Luckily, for the other 14 percent of people
who have felt “tattoo remorse,” there is a
safe, highly effective option using laser technology
to reverse what may have seemed like
a permanent decision.
Bridget Miller, a certified laser technician
and owner of East Side Laser Center in
Shadyside, has been removing tattoos since
2006. This year, she will see approximately
280 patients for tattoo removal, which
requires multiple appointments spaced six to
eight weeks apart and can cost far more than
the price tag of the original ink.
“I’ve removed tattoos from surgeons,
lawyers, law students, bankers, stay-at-home
moms—I do them all,” Miller says. “They
are tired of them!”
The $65,000 laser system she uses delivers
infrared light aimed at the embedded ink
for extremely short pulse durations of just
three nanoseconds, so as not to burn or scar
the surrounding tissue.
“The laser penetrates to the deepest part
of the dye, about a millimeter down, and
starts to shatter it into miniscule pieces,
which are then flushed out through your
lymphatic system,” Miller explains.
Laser removal is the standard of care
today for tattoo removal, but it’s not foolproof.
Even after the final treatment, a slight
shadow or “ghosting” of the tattoo may still
remain for some clients.
Rhonda (who only wanted to use her
first name), 43, works in Shadyside and is a
regular client of Miller’s. After her seventh
laser treatment, she is about halfway through
the process of removing a tattoo “of a spiritual
nature” she got on her wrist a year ago.
“Shortly after I got the tattoo, I realized
that wasn’t the best professional decision I
could have made because in my administrative
role, my company has a policy of requiring
that it be covered up and I didn’t want to
do that,” she says.
Everyone’s pain tolerance varies, but
Rhonda says the laser treatments feel like her
skin is burning off. “It is the most painful
thing I have ever gone through,” she says.
“I’d rather give birth to 10-pound baby twins
without an epidural.”
Brittany Oliver, an aesthetic laser specialist
at The Skin Center in Shadyside, says patients who come to the medical spa for tattoo
removal tend to fall into four categories:
those who no longer care to have tattoos;
those who would prefer more inconspicuous
tattoos; those who have initials or names
from previous relationships; and those coming
out of college who find resistance in getting
employment because of visible tattoos.
Left: Bridget Miller using a laser technique to remove a
tattoo at her East Side Laser Center.
Among The Skin Center’s clients are
those who have tried to enter the military,
but are unable to meet regulations regarding
visible tattoos. “We are currently offering
free tattoo removal [for those patients], providing
they furnish us a letter to that effect
from their recruiting officer,” Oliver says.
Miller also gives back to the community
by removing tattoos from gang members—
pro bono. She started this work in 2009
when Kim Kaufman, then a clinical assistant
with Western PA Child Care, asked her if she
would treat a girl who had gang-related tattoos
next to her eye that would preclude her
from getting a job.
Kaufman, founder of the nonprofit
Rethink My Ink, says it’s not about whether you have tattoos or not. “It’s the visible tattoos
with negative connotations that are
going to limit a person’s opportunities in life
that I’m concerned about,” she says.
So far, Miller has done laser treatment on
more than 100 gang members to remove
their tattoos. “Normally, when someone has
a tattoo removed, it costs roughly $200 per
treatment and it takes 10 to 15 treatments,”
says Kaufmann. “But Bridget has never said,
‘I can’t do it.’ That impresses me.”
In an essay to Rethink My Ink, a young
man named Nafis Brown wrote about the
effect he felt his gang-related tattoos were
going to have on his college prospects: “As I
sat in the college admissions office just last
week, I felt extremely uncomfortable, as I
often worry about what people think of my
Kaufman then referred him to Miller,
who began treatments, and Brown’s academic
adviser informed Miller that Brown is now
“smiling from ear to ear” knowing that he
will be able to move forward with his college
“This is why I do what I do with these
kids,” says Miller.