01/18/2012 02:15 pm ET Updated Jan 19, 2012

Teens With Tattoos: Students, Parents, And Teachers Open Up About Getting Inked

This is a teen-written article from The Communicator, the student-run print and online newspaper of Community High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

A life-long mark is inserted through tiny pricks into the skin’s top layer. A hand-held machine acting just like a sewing machine pierces the skin repeatedly, and with every insertion, a scar appears. For a collection of students and staff at Community High School, their skin has been decorated by colorful images, some hidden, others in the open -- a perpetual drawing -- a tattoo.

Alia Persico-Shammas, Student

A small boat holds a young girl sitting delicately on the edge. Since age 15, CHS senior Alia Persico-Shammas’s skin has been garnished with this image on her body. That young girl on the boat is her mother as a teenager. When Persico-Shammas was 13, her mother died of cancer, and on the second anniversary of her mother’s death, her mother’s picture was permanently inked onto her side. “I had just been thinking about it for a very long time and I just wanted to do something for her but also kind of really for me, to solidify that part of my life because I feel like when something happens like that, it is hard to believe it is real, so it makes it real for me and okay. I don’t really want to remember my mom as sick as she was when she died; I want to remember her like the person she was. She was a really amazing person,” said Persico-Shammas. She explained that in just that single tattoo, so many of her mother’s characteristics that she adored, such as her wisdom, beauty, and desire for adventure, are visible.

Hannah Lehker, Student

The peony represents passion and intensity; the peony bud is for a pleasant future; vines mean strength and connection to self and others. The dragonfly with a bold shadow is finding balance. CHS Junior Hannah Lehker recently got tattooed in early October of this year. Lehker’s entire shoulder is covered in design. As she finally reached the legal age of 16 to get inked, Lehker jumped right on the opportunity. “I love it and wouldn’t change any of it but some people can’t believe it’s real and like to scratch it,” said Lehker. Her parents were more then fine with the idea as well. “My mom even came with me and got something done too,” she said.

Liz Stern, Teacher

There are three small dots, two on her waist and one in the center of her body. She had breast cancer. CHS teacher Liz Stern’s story is different than most. Three years ago, for 30 consecutive days, Stern went to the hospital. She had to be perfectly aligned to the machine to make sure the radiation would miss her vital organs and target the cancer; the most efficient way to secure the place was to tattoo the location. “I didn’t know that they were going to do that. I was just kind of lying there and they have this bottle of ink and they were like ‘Oh it won’t hurt, we just need to make markers,’” said Stern.

The dots, although small, are persistent reminders of what Stern had to experience. “I think that [radiation] is definitely something to go through and you know it’s not an easy thing, so I think when you get on the other side of it, and three… five… 10 years out; you’re like this [tattoo] is pretty cool, I’m glad that it is over,” she said.

Kevin Davis, Community Assistant

A bear claw, a lizard, and Mighty Mouse. Kevin Davis, Community Assistant at CHS, currently has nine tattoos and those are just three of them. Davis, like Persico-Shammas, received his first tattoo when he was 15, and has continued to add to his collection.

For most of Davis’s tattoos, it is more about the aesthetics than the meanings. Most of his recent tattoos have been designed by CHS students. “I usually find a nice art student and have them design one for me. I haven’t had a specific connection to the student but I see some of their art and ask if they want to design one for me,” said Davis.

With the addition of the CHS students’ artwork, Davis’s potpourri of tattoos is growing and addiction is one of the reasons why. “If I wasn’t addicted to them, I wouldn’t have as many as I have. I have tried to stop, a long time before my last four. It is an expensive habit and you just have to find the right design and say ‘Okay, yeah, I want this permanent,’” said Davis.

The permanent aspect of tattoos does not bother Davis. “If I assumed that I could wash them off, I would never get them. They are a part of me now and I enjoy expressing a part of me.”

Tattoo Removal

According to Teri McHenry, a Registered Nurse at a dermatologist’s office, tattoos don’t have to be permanent. It is possible to “wash” them off -- with lots of money, time, and possible side effects. McHenry says that her patients describe the procedure as “Extremely painful and more painful than getting the tattoo itself. They say it feels like getting hot oil splattered on them, and they can’t get away.”

The pain also costs a lot of money. The removal of an image tends to be almost double the cost of the tattoo application. “The removal for a 2”x2” tattoo is $99 per treatment and people can need between five to 15 treatments. You can do the math,” said McHenry.

Although side effects of the treatment that McHenry performs are easy to avoid, if appropriate measures are not taken to avoid them, they can be painful. “In one [extreme] case, a patient popped his blister with something unsanitary and didn’t use an antibiotic ointment as follow-up-care and he ended up with sepsis, a blood infection, which was treated in the hospital with IV antibiotics,” said McHenry. McHenry said that strong allergic reactions are also possible, as well as an internal itching feeling.

Even with some pitfalls, there are also advantages to getting the tattoo removed. “People’s self-esteem and confidence is regained. They can live their life now as if that regrettable moment of getting the tattoo never happened. Every patient that starts this journey of removing their unwanted tattoo, wants it off yesterday, they can’t wait until it is gone. This is when I remind them to have patience, their tattoo was put on to be permanent, and slowly we will get it off,” said McHenry.

Parent Perspective

But for Matthew Graff, CHS parent, he hopes his children will not have to worry having to get a tattoo removed. “While I do appreciate the artistry and the beauty of many forms of body art, my biggest concern is that I have seen fashions change. I would not want my own kids to make a choice based on a current trend that locks them into this moment,” said Graff.

The past also holds a concerning effect on why Graff has chosen to not get a tattoo. “There is a troubling echo of the Holocaust years, when many of my own family members were tattooed by the Nazis, in part as a deliberate desecration to religious persons. We went through that dark time and now our children willingly choose these marks -- sort of weird,” said Graff. Although Graff believes that if his children do decide to ink themselves after age 18, he won’t admire their choices but respect them enough to keep on loving them.

Love is evident through the deliberate decisions to get a tattoo. Whether it be for a lost loved one or a personal story, a tattoo creates a visual imprint that will never be forgotten. “I think tattoos are just really really beautiful. It is just a really cool way to express yourself,” concluded Persico-Shammas.

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