His goal: erasable tattoos
Despite what his son has read on the Internet, Dr. Rox Anderson says he is not the enemy of tattoos.
"My youngest son, Jake, Googled me and found these websites where people say I'm against tattoos," Anderson said from his cluttered corner office in the Wellman Center for Photomedicine at Mass. General Hospital, where he is the director. "The truth is I don't care that much about tattoos either way. I'm a doctor; I care about people. I got into this because I kept meeting people who were unhappy, or their lives were messed up socially, because of a tattoo."
Anderson, 56, is one of the leaders in the field of laser tattoo removal, which is growing alongside the national appetite for body art. What's made him the subject of Internet chatter of late is that he's developed a new type of removable tattoo ink, slated to hit the market later this year, which will allow for a tattoo to be completely erased with a single laser procedure and cost far less than the current methods.
Where tattoos flout and celebrate permanence, Anderson's ink deals with the reality that he's discovered in more than two decades of research: People change.
"Twenty-five percent of the population has a tattoo, including nearly half of those between age 25 and 35. And one in five wants to get it removed," he said. "But few go through the process of getting it removed because it's costly, it's painful, and it's not perfect."
The average tattoo removal requires between seven and 10 sessions under the laser -- costing up to $1,000 per session -- and even then, it may leave traces or scarring. "I worked for 10 years to improve the lasers, and at some point you come to a limit," Anderson said as his small green parrot, Photon, looked on. "That's when I started thinking about the other side of the equation: the inks themselves."
Tattoo inks are a black art. They are unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration and often contain toxins and carcinogens which, when broken up by a laser, lodge in the lymph nodes. Many of the inks -- particularly yellow and orange -- are very difficult to remove completely.
Anderson's ink -- which he developed with researchers at Duke University and Brown University and is being marketed by Freedom-2, a New York company -- is biodegradable and encased in a clear plastic polymer bead. The tattoos are expected to have the look and permanence of current inks, but, should the patient choose to have it removed, a laser can break open the bead, freeing the ink to be absorbed safely by the body. The polymer beads will remain in place under the skin but will not be visible.
Anderson, who is also a professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School, estimates he's removed more than 1,000 tattoos in his career. While some patients seek the treatment for bad artwork or allergic reactions to the tattoo, Anderson said the overwhelming reason people get tattoos removed is because it is "no longer what they want to express to the world." To that end, he started a program called Project Prentiss, which offers free removal for former gang members in exchange for community service.
"I know that tattooing is not going away. It's a part of humanity," he said. "I interviewed a lot of tattoo artists, and I know that a lot of them don't like the idea of getting a tattoo only to have it removed. As one told me, 'A tattoo should be expensive, painful, and permanent.' But there are others who are not so religious about it. They see it as a service and they were thrilled with the idea of a safe, permanent ink that can be removed."
if people change their mind."
As for Anderson, he has no plans to test the ink on himself. And what if his two sons wanted to get a tattoo?
"It would have to be my ink," he said with the knowing smile of a father.
Hometown: Champaign, IL, now living in Boston.
Family: Unmarried. Has two sons, John, 22, a student at Brown University, and Jake, 20.
Education: Earned a bachelor's degree in life sciences from MIT in 1972 (where his thesis laid the groundwork for precise microsurgery with lasers) and an MD from the health sciences and technology program at Harvard Medical School in 1984.
Hobbies: Plays the banjo and the piano and enjoys fishing.
On big mountains: "They're there to be climbed," said Anderson, who celebrated his 50th birthday atop Mount Fuji in Japan.
On the web: One tattoo aficionado anonymously wrote: "To the concept of . . . cheating permanence by getting a tattoo, a supposed permanent decision, with this new dissolving ink. . . . To that I just laugh a little, not in contempt but amusement at society's notion of permanence: Isn't marriage supposed to be permanent, too, originally intended to last us the rest of our lives and to some beliefs well beyond?"