BOSTON — If your teenager bangs through the front door one day and announces, "I want a tattoo," a response of calm restraint is much better than a shriek of horror.
Consider that statement a gift alongside the alternative: "Hi Mom. Guess what? I just got tattooed." A sleeve is lifted to reveal a coiled, red-eyed cobra.
Twenty years ago tattoos were seen by most of Western culture as the property of uninhibited sailors, motorcycle gangs, and rock stars.
Other cultures on other continents have embraced tattoos for centuries.
But today, tattoos are often considered close to mainstream in the United States and Britain as either a fashion statement or an expression of identity for many youths.
In a downtown Boston park, two of four teenage skateboarders say their parents have given permission for tattoos but only when they reach 17. "My Dad has a tattoo," says one boy, "but he says I'm too young now to make a decision. I don't know any of my friends that doesn't want one."
Celebrities too are on the tattoo bandwagon. Julia Roberts, JFK Jr., Melanie Griffith, and Sean Connery are reported to have tattoos. Cher had at least five and is reportedly having some, if not all, of them removed.
What often fails to penetrate much youthful exuberance is that a tattoo is permanent while styles come and go.
"Tattoos have become a fad," says Clinton Sanders, the author of "Customizing Your Body," and a sociology professor at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Conn., "and like all fads, it grows on itself with lots of help from the media." Still, more-elaborate tattoos today are considered works of art by many observers.
Marisa Butler, a teenager from Vermont visiting a record store in Boston, designed her own tattoo, a daisy and a cross intertwined. "It's cool and small and on the lower part of my back," she says, lifting her shirt. "My parents wouldn't let me do it for a long time. They were repressing me, but finally they said OK."
Lax enforcement of laws
Although most states have laws against tattooing children under 18, or only with parental consent, enforcement is often lax or nonexistent. Most tattoo parlors are law-abiding and insured, but some ignore the laws knowing regulation is hit or miss.
Many inner-city tattoos are crude homemade versions, particularly among young gang members, who jab their gang marks or symbols with inked needles into their hands, faces, and arms.
Only four states - South Carolina, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, and Indiana - ban tattooing. Kentucky requires a licensed nurse to be in attendance at tattoo parlors.
But just as tattooing has increased on college campuses and in society, a less-publicized reaction is under way, that of tattoo removal through laser techniques.
And a big help for concerned parents is the availability of a new generation of fake or temporary tattoos that can be pressed on a child's arm and last from two days to a week.
"If people are undecided about tattoos," says a spokeswoman for Don Ling's Removable Tattoos, distributed from Butterfield, Minn., "this is a good way to try one. I have a 14-year-old son, and he wore a temporary wrestling tattoo to school and all the other kids wanted one."
Anthony Thatcher, executive director of Cosmetic Laser Clinic in Burlington, Mass., says the average age for getting a tattoo is a little over 20. "So it ranges from youths in their late teens to young people in their early 20s who get tattoos," he says. "It's rare for people in their late 30s to be tattooed." More common are men and women in their 30s wanting to remove the name of an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend.
Costly laser removal
The people who come to Mr. Thatcher's clinic for tattoo removal fall into two groups. "We see upwardly mobile people who come from the working class," he says, "and a tattoo doesn't fit their lifestyle anymore. They don't want their grandchildren or their children to see it.
The second group does it for career reasons, or they are in the police or military and feel that having a tattoo diminishes their authority.
A Massachusetts professional man in his late 30s who recently had a tattoo removed, but wants to remain anonymous, says he acquired the tattoo on his arm nine years ago.
"After a while," he says, "I wouldn't wear short-sleeve shirts. Now I'm close to getting married, and so many people tend to judge the tattoo and not the person, so I had it removed."
Depending on the size of the tattoo, removal can cost from $500 to more than $3,000. A laser provides a highly amplified light pulse that breaks up the pigments in the skin, which are then reabsorbed in the body.
Those who have had tattoo removals say the laser feels like the snap of a rubber band.