Maia Lee: People judge me by my tattoos
Each of her 33 tattoos was a mark of rebellion. They are also hard to remove. So while the rebel in Maia Lee faded as time passed, the 33 reminders of her past did not.
Lee, 31, a former Singapore Idol finalist, got her first tattoo at 16 and continued getting them till she was 25.
"It was a rebellious streak. I didn't want to conform to societal norms and at that point of time, I felt that body art was a way to make a statement," she said.
Lee said she decided to remove her tattoos because people tended to judge her by them. Also, removing them signalled a new phase in her life as she had converted to Christianity.
She said: "Sometimes, I go for a casting or apply for a project and my body art warrants an immediate 'no'. Then again, who would want to hire someone with angkong (tattoos in Hokkien) all over her body?
"People judge you based on first impressions and the social stigma of tattoos being a taboo will always be there," she said. "Even when I see someone on the street with tattoos, I will have a negative impression of them."
Since 2011, Lee has gone for more than 20 treatments, with each session to remove them costing $400 to $1,000, depending on the size.
Initially, the pain was bearable as she started with the smaller tattoos.
She said: "The first treatment was not as bad as I had expected, so I continued with the other tattoos that I can't hide - those on my arms, back and neck."
And with that, the pain increased. Sometimes, it was so intense she cried.
She described it as a "roller coaster of pain" and "mini-explosions" on her skin.
She said she would tremble before the laser was fired and she would wince in agony for sensitive areas like her lower back. Blisters would later form.
"My skin felt as if it was being hammered by a meat tenderiser. However, my tattoos got lighter with each session and that motivated me to continue," she said.
Lee's friends and family supported her decision to remove her tattoos. But the tattoo community branded her a traitor.
That did not, however, deter Lee from sharing her journey with netizens and she started a blog that tracks her tattoo-removal progress.
But Lee stopped her treatment in 2012, when she was pregnant with her third child. She was afraid that the lasers would cause complications during her pregnancy.
Lee still sports an assortment of coloured and faded tattoos. She told TNP that she is waiting for her doctor to give the green light before she resumes her treatment to remove the faded tattoos.
The mother of three children, who are aged between one and 12, now considers motherhood her priority, followed by her business, a children's clothing line called Poppykins Boutique.
So what will happen if her children get a tattoo?
"Well, they better make sure it's somewhere that I can't see. I will drag them to my doctor and remove their tattoos on the spot," she said.
Dr Elias Tham, Lee's doctor and a general practitioner with a special interest in aesthetic medicine for 16 years, said most of his patients are like her - people who are looking for a fresh start in life.
"The majority of my patients are people with families. They got their tattoos without thinking about the repercussions and they regretted it when they are older."
The 45-year-old is also part of an initiative launched in July 2009 by the Yellow Ribbon Project and GiGatt International to help former gang members seek employability and reintegrate into society.
Inmates with tattoos can remove their tattoos for free while serving their sentences.
He said: "I have encountered numerous ex-offenders and prison inmates who wanted to start afresh and I encourage their decision to do so.
"Those tattoos are a reminder of their bad past and removing them helps the public see them in a different light."
My skin felt as if it was being hammered by a meat tenderiser.
- Maia Lee, on her tattoo removal process
Tattoos remind him of bad past
He has been given a new lease of life, thanks to the tattoo removal programme, which was started last year by the Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association (Sana).
In 2010, Mr Mohd Iswandy Aziz was a drug offender hooked on methamphetamine (ice).
While serving his sentence, Mr Mohd Iswandy realised that his tattoos were a reminder of his troubled past. So he decided to rid of them and turn over a new leaf.
"I wanted to remove my tattoos to set a good example for my family. I don't want my two daughters to grow up asking me why I have tattoos all over my body."
He added that society's negative perception of tattoos also motivated him to remove his tattoos.
"Sometimes, when I'm outside, I will meet people who judge me negatively based on my tattoos," said the 31-year-old.
With the help of Sana, former offenders pay only 10 per cent of the total cost of a tattoo removal - about $120.
It takes up to 10 sessions to remove a tattoo, depending on its size and colour. Each lasts nine minutes.
Mr Mohd Iswandy completed his 10 sessions earlier this year and removed a visible tattoo on his forearm.
He told TNP that he had to pay only $12 for each session, after subsidies from Sana and the National Skin Centre (NSC).
A spokesman for Sana said: "Many ex-offenders who seek employment and want to reintegrate into society struggle to do so, due to the presence of visible tattoos on their arms, hands, neck and other exposed parts of their bodies.
"Additionally, the high cost of tattoo removal prevents ex-offenders from receiving laser treatment."
With the help of a fund-raiser by the NSC, which raised $50,000 on Aug 23 through a charity walk, another 80 people will benefit from the tattoo removal programme.
Lasers break down pigments in tattoo removal
TREATMENT: Dr Elias Tham preparing the laser before firing it on Maia Lee's right arm.
Dr Elias Tham, a general practitioner with a special interest in aesthetic medicine for 16 years, told TNP that tattoo removal is a straightforward procedure.
The process involves laser treatment, which works by producing short pulses of high-intensity light beams that targets the ink molecules on the top layer of the skin.
The laser fragments the coloured pigments into tiny pieces and the body's immune system will remove the particles, causing the ink to fade gradually.
Dr Tham, 45, of EHA Clinic,said: "Before we start the treatment, the first step is to apply numbing cream (to minimise the pain) and place safety goggles on the patient to protect the eyes.
"We then place the tattooed area on the device and activate the laser light."
After the treatment, patients are instructed to apply antibiotic cream and a protective patch.
Treatment will depend on the size and type of tattoo.
A palm-size black tattoo will take between six and 15 sessions while multi-coloured ink tattoos will take a longer time to remove.
He said: "Colours like yellow and pink have different colour pigments and a different laser - a diode laser is required. Thus, it is more tedious to remove tattoos with different coloured pigments.
"However, white tattoos can't be removed by normal lasers. You have to ablate the skin."
Dr Tham said each session has to be separated by a six- to eight-week interval to give the immune system sufficient time to remove the pigments from the body.
Dr Joshua Lim, 55, at Aesthetic Medical Clinic, another general practitioner with a special interest in aesthetic medicine, said he would always recommend laser treatment for his patients.
He said: "In the past, tattoos could be removed by a variety of methods such as ablating of the skin. This will leave scars that are more unsightly than the tattoo itself.
"Laser treatment is non-invasive, non-surgical and it will leave minimal scarring. The laser is designed to remove only the coloured pigments in tattoos and the top layer of the skin is not damaged."
You have to cover up at this club
In January, The Straits Times reported that dance club Genesis wanted partygoers with conspicuous tattoos to cover up if they want to be let in.
And if they flash their body art while inside the Marina Bay Sands nightspot, they risk being banned.
Genesis' ban has been in place since it opened on Dec 24 at the Marina Bay Sands Crystal Pavilion.
Efocus Entertainment, which manages Genesis' club nights, said the ban is to create a "friendly, comfortable environment". "We filter the crowd to lower the risks of fights or unrest because those with tattoos tend to attract a lot of unwanted attention," said a spokesman.