SHIFT Magazine: “It Hurts a Heck of a Lot More to Get it Off”

May 11, 2010  

By Sam Todd

Fifteen-year-old Cartavis Simon has always loved basketball. He often plays with friends, and watches players like J.R. Smith, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris “Birdman” Andersen of the Denver Nuggets play under bright arena lights on the television in his living room. He also loves rap music, especially artists like Lil’ Wayne and Chris Brown. The shy high school freshman doesn’t say much when asked why he likes these celebrities, but they do all have one very obvious thing in common – they’re all covered in tattoos.

Simon often plays basketball with friends on the court of an apartment complex near his own, where he lives with his mother. He has a close group of friends, and at their age, the boys are quick to jump at any opportunity to be seen as cool, or mature.

While shooting baskets over a weekend in November, one of his friends showed up with a freshly inked tattoo, which he got from a guy who lived in the complex. When Simon and his friends were offered the chance to get tattoos of their own, they left the court behind to get “tatted up,” just like the celebrities they idolize.

As he flipped through a photo album of tattoos this self-proclaimed “artist” has drawn, Simon noticed the needles and equipment in the apartment and figured it wasn’t a bad idea to get one of his own. He saw a tattoo of a star in one of the photographs, and told the man with the equipment that he wanted one on each hand, with a ‘C’ on one and a ‘T’ on the other. His friends call him CT, and one of the other boys, Anthony, was getting his initials tattooed, so it seemed like a good idea at the time.

His friend Tay decided to get his mother’s name on his arm, while his other friend, Trey, got a halo above a smiley face on the back of his hand. The fifth member of the group, Neiman, is a little younger than the other boys, and more cautious. He didn’t even step into the apartment, and waited outside patiently for his friends to emerge with their new marks.

As the “tattoo dude”  began drawing the first star, Simon started to feel nervous. While the ink seeped underneath his skin, the man asked if his mother knows about this, and at that point Simon was overcome with anxiety. He decided one star is enough, without any letters or initials, and headed back to the basketball court.

Simon walked home over that weekend in November knowing that under no circumstance could his mother find out about what happened in that apartment. He figured that he could keep his hand in his pocket, or somewhere out of sight, and she would never find out.

He calmly asked his mother for some Vaseline after he walked into the house, as he could still feel where the needle etched the star into the skin of his small hand. His mother asked why he needed the Vaseline, and as he had rehearsed before, Simon quickly responded that a friend had fallen during the game and needed it for a scrape. She saw straight through his lie. Before he knew it, his mother noticed the tattoo, and she was furious.

“In the state of Texas, it is against the law for anyone under 18 years old to get a tattoo,” says M.C. Whitehurst, who runs the Dallas Tattoo Removal Clinic. “And just until recently, in Oklahoma it was illegal for anyone to get a tattoo, regardless of how old they were.”

Whitehurst has been removing tattoos from patients who finally regret getting one in the first place for about 10 years. As he and the patient don glasses with protective orange-tinted lenses, a laser pops against the skin, leaving white marks and sometimes even drawing blood. But for today’s patient, a 15-year-old boy named Cartavis who made a decision that his mother was very unhappy with, it hardly feels like anything at all.

As Simon and his mother, Shunda Morris, sit in the small waiting room at the clinic near Interstate 35 and Mockingbird Lane in Dallas, Morris explains the events that have required her young son to have these monthly treatments, leaving white marks that look more like a pencil eraser than the mark of an advanced laser. She seems relatively calm for a mother whose son decided to get a tattoo before he had even finished his first semester of high school, but after four visits, it’s understandable. And as an added bonus, because Simon is under 17 and the tattoo is in a place hard to cover up, Whitehurst doesn’t charge a dollar for the treatments.

Whitehurst had retired from a career working with mental health patients, but he found himself with far too much time on his hands. One of his good friends was a doctor who had urged him to come back to work leasing tattoo removal equipment to clinics in the area. Whitehurst had no background in tattoo removal, but as he needed something to take up his newly found free time, he realized it wasn’t that bad an idea. After a few years of doing this, he began to think it wasn’t really worth it, and started removing the tattoos himself.

In the early 2000s, gang-related tattoos were becoming a problem not only in Dallas, but all over Texas. The state developed a program that supplied local health departments with grant money to remove any gang-affiliated tattoo from prisoners or former gang members, and Whitehurst was the man who took the job.

He removed tattoos from members of the infamous MS-13, with the most memorable being from one of the gang leaders. The man had two enormous numbers going down his face: a ‘1’ and a ‘3,’ and after Whitehurst performed a few treatments, the man received a three to five year sentence for aggravated assault. Whitehurst saw him once more after he got out of jail, but it had been almost 10 months ago.

The treatment room is one of just four rooms in the Dallas Tattoo Removal Clinic, with one wall covered in before and after shots of his patients. One picture shows a woman who had large, black carat marks tattooed over her eyes, in an attempt at having her eyebrows permanently done. Another picture shows a man’s chest covered in tattoos of every color, from the top of his neck to the ends of his fingertips. Whitehurst discusses with his new patients how some colors are harder to remove than others, especially anything with a green base. But luckily, today’s appointments are mostly black ink, including the star on the back of Cartavis Simon’s hand.

After the nurse applies a generic antibiotic ointment and covers his hand with white bandages, Simon isn’t really thinking about the procedure he just went through, how much it would have normally cost or whether his mother will ever forgive him. All he’s really thinking about is what he’s going to do after he gets back to his house in the Dallas suburbs.

Once he gets in his mother’s car, he’ll take off the bandage without thinking twice. And although he might be getting this one removed, it won’t be his last affair with tattoos. Once he moves out of the house and starts calling his own shots, he plans on getting a bunch of them – and in all different colors.

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