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The Boston Globe

Lifestyle

As laser tattoo removal expands, so do questions

Rob Harris is an avid rock climber and “gym rat” at a climbing wall in Everett. It’s a place with a lot of young people, a lot of strong people — and “a lot of skin showing,” he said.

And a lot of tattoos, which puzzled him. “I’d see them on wrists and necks, and places where it seemed people would regret it,” said Harris, 42.

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So last fall when he was laid off, he knew what his next career move would be: He’d remove tattoos. He took a two-week course in Arizona to become a certified laser technician and in March opened Disappearing inc., a laser tattoo removal studio in Downtown Crossing.

Harris joins a growing number of entrepreneurs who are starting businesses specializing in laser tattoo removal, a procedure that was once the exclusive domain of physicians. As more practitioners do it, and as the technology evolves, tattoos no longer seem to be forever.

Such an expansion troubles doctors, who caution that powerful lasers wielded by non-physicians can be dangerous. Massachusetts regulations governing tattoo removal aren’t as stringent as some other states, according to the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery Association, an advocacy group. Although Massachusetts is among a majority of states that consider the procedure to be the practice of medicine, it does not require a physician to be present during the procedure. (Only six states do require a doctor on site, including Connecticut.)

Massachusetts is one of only 10 states lacking oversight of the advertising of tattoo and tattoo removal services to prevent misleading claims. The situation brings worry that skin ailments or other medical issues won’t be identified at tattoo removal clinics.

“Remember, you are not just treating the tattoo, you are treating the biology of the skin around it,” said Dr. Mathew Avram, director of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Dermatology Laser and Cosmetic Center. “If you don’t know what you’re looking at ... you’re just blindly treating it.”

But many consumers are happy about the clinics, for cost and other reasons. Insurance doesn’t cover cosmetic tattoo removal, and laser procedures are more expensive in a physician’s office, said Dr. Jeffrey Dover, co-director of SkinCare Physicians, a Chestnut Hill dermatology practice. He charges between $400-$800 per visit, and the minimum is usually six treatments. At Disappearing inc., treatments range from $90-$400, depending on the size of the tattoo.

“Given the choice, I decided a studio was the way to go because it is their only specialization,” said Tom Comparetto,33, a business analyst for Bank of America and a client at Disappearing inc. “Unlike dermatologists, who are confronted with a host of skin issues all day every day, a tattoo removal studio sees nothing else, and has probably experienced more variety of skin tones, ink types, and tattoo designs as a result.”

Using a laser, Rob Harris worked to remove a tattoo from Thomas Comparetto's back.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Using a laser, Rob Harris worked to remove a tattoo from Thomas Comparetto's back.

Disappearing inc. looks to be in growing company. Delete Tattoo Removal and Laser Salon — a sleek studio that also does other kinds of skin treatments — also opened in March, on Newbury Street. Tataway, in the Leather District, has been doing laser tattoo removal for a year and half.

Still, the field is in its infancy. Revenue from tattoo removal across the country increased at an annual average rate of 20.9 percent between 2007 and 2012, to $66 million, said the market research firm IBISWorld , which attributes the growth to the tough job market.

“The recession ... has heightened unemployment and, in turn, increased demand from job seekers who need to cover up tattoos in order to obtain employment,” the report said.

For Harris, a graduate of the Wharton School of business at the University of Pennsylvania, the world of tattoos was a big professional detour. The Brookline resident had worked for Procter & Gamble as a sales representative and for Reebok in marketing and has been a fund-raiser for Boston Children’s Hospital and Tufts Medical Center. Most recently, he was New England regional director of the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America.

But the businessman in him saw potential. Nearly 40 percent of people ages 18-29 have a tattoo, according to a 2010 Pew Research study. So do 32 percent of 30- to 45-year-olds.

Harris’s decision to open Disappearing inc. was based on a simple calculus: The more tattoos people put on, the more tattoos they’ll take off.

“All those sayings written on forearms and ankles that are really trendy right now, like ‘Live Life to the Fullest?’ Tattoo artists I talked to think those will be the next ones taken off in 10 years,” he said.

The data, not that there’s much of it, support his hunch. According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, the number of people undergoing laser tattoo removal by dermatologists and plastic surgeons increased 43 percent from 2011 to 2012.

“Everything came together that this is really a good idea,” he said.

Disappearing inc. is conspicuously pro-tattoo. Harris recently got a tattoo himself, on his bicep. It’s an atom; the electrons represent family members. “I wanted to be able to understand the experience first hand,’’ he said. “We embrace the tattoo culture. This is about turning the page for people.’’

He has treated nearly 200 clients in his first three months of business. To become a certified technician, Harris took the two-week course in Arizona. The state also requires technicians to enlist a supervisory physician, which, according to Martin Cohn, associate director of the Massachusetts Academy of Dermatology, is a vague term.

“Therein likes the gray area,” Cohn said. “This could [be interpreted as] they have to be reachable by phone, but not necessarily in the building.”

After opening Disappearing inc., Harris launched an “Undo My Tattoo” contest inviting people to send in pictures and stories of tattoos they wanted gone. They are a sorry testament to bad judgment and bad luck. One woman had had her husband’s name, John, plastered across her back; he physically abused her and they divorced. There was also the woman who’d wanted a portrait of her beloved grandmother. It turned out, she said, to look like a “zombie.”

Comparetto got a large tribal design on his lower back 10 years ago. Now “they’re a tired cliche,” he said. And worse. “Having a tribal tattoo on my lower back means I’ve got a tramp stamp. Back when I was 22 and agreed to this design, I’d never even heard the term.”

Harris said “youthful indiscretion” is a common theme: “A lot of stories I hear begin with, ‘When I was drunk.’”

He also sees men and women who want to join the military, which has restrictions on tattoos.

That’s one of the reasons why Ronen Morris, 34, decided to start Delete Tattoo Removal, where procedures are performed by a registered nurse, though state regulations don’t require that. Morris is also an attorney for the US Department of Veterans Affairs.

“You have these kids who have a dream of joining our nation’s armed services and being denied because of a tattoo they got when they were 17, or younger,” he said. “We are able to give them back their future.”

Linda Matchan can be reached at l_matchan@globe.com

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