SINGAPORE - We've all heard about the use of invisible ink in modern-day CSI television dramas, but who would have thought that some teens are using that same ink on their bodies for tattoos?
Dubbed "UV tattoos", they are visible only under ultraviolet light and are popular with trendy teens who go clubbing.
They also serve a more practical purpose: They allow the teens to keep their "body art" hidden from disapproving parents and teachers.
These UV tattoos, like regular ones, leave a visible scab initially, but fade and become "invisible" over time.
Under UV lights, like those used in many clubs, the tattoos become visible, emitting a neon glow.
But just how safe is it?
Those who sport such tattoos claim that these inks have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for such purposes as marking and tracking frozen meat.
A quick check on the FDA website, however, shows that there is no mention of both regular and ultraviolet-reactive ink being approved for use on human skin. FDA also discourages all forms of tattooing.
There have also been reports that this special UV ink can cause skin irritations such as rashes, blisters, and warts. Because many of these inks contain toxic phosphors, there were even concerns from a tattoo artist The New Paper spoke to that the ink can cause cancer.
There have been instances where UV tattoos reportedly lose their UV reactiveness over time. Some also turn brown after being exposed to sunlight for prolonged periods.
It is unclear when or where UV tattooing began, but TNP understands that it was only recently that they started becoming popular.
TNP called up four well-known local tattoo parlours and found that three of them provide UV tattoo services.
Customers are usually those who "go clubbing a lot" and include adult office workers, not just teens."
"We get a few (of such) requests every now and then, mainly from teens who go clubbing a lot. The lights in clubs expose the tattoos and these people think it's cool," said a tattoo artist who wanted to be known only as Mr Carlston, 34, from Acid Crue Tattoo 'N' Body Piercing at Peninsula Shopping Centre.
These UV tattoos are more expensive than regular ones, as the UV ink used is thinner and harder to work with, requiring more effort in its application.
While there are many different formulas for different brands of UV inks, certain brands contain poisonous phosphors known to cause severe blisters and skin rashes.
While Mr Carlston told TNP that while "none of his customers ever encountered any problems after getting UV tattoos", he was also quick to dissuade anyone who requests for them, simply because of the potential skin problems it can cause.
Another tattoo artist we spoke to claimed that despite reports of skin problems, UV tattoos are safe and no different from regular tattoos.
Mr Alecs Khoo, 39, a tattoo artist from Alive Tattoo Studio at Lucky Chinatown along New Bridge Road, attributed the complaints to cheap and inferior ink used in the tattoos.
He said: "There's really no difference between regular tattoos and UV tattoos. It's all about where you get the ink from.
"We import our UV ink from a regular supplier in America and after so many years, none of my customers has ever encountered any problems after getting inked."
But not everyone is buying into the trend.
Mr Chak Chow, 56, from Johnny Two Thumb Tattoo Studio, dismissed the whole concept of UV tattoos as a "gimmick".
Mr Chak, whose parlour don't provide UV tattooing, said: "You can't even see it and it's toxic for your skin. What's the point?"
But that didn't stop 19-year-old Joey Tan from getting such tattoos.
The former Republic Polytechnic student is a student at the Management Development Institute of Singapore and got her first UV tattoo in 2010.
She did so as she wanted something "unique" and because she wanted to keep her tattoo a secret from her strict mother.
She forked out an average of $200 for each of her four UV tattoos, all of which are "slightly smaller than the size of a playing card".
When quizzed on whether she encountered any skin problems since then, Ms Tan revealed that she did, but claimed that it because she didn't care for her tattoos properly.
She said: "I have a scar now because I didn't take proper care of the tattoos after it was done.
"I knew even before I got inked that there was a possibility of that happening, but I figured that since you only live once, I'll just give it a try."
Ms Charlene Teo is another student to have a UV tattoo.
The 19-year-old student at the Singapore Institute of Management went under the needle three years ago when she was still in secondary school.
"I thought that it was unique. Also, I wanted to get a tattoo on my wrist, but I didn't want my parents to find out about it."
As for the risks involved, she said: "I did a lot of research before I got my tattoo and I did know about the skin infections that some people had after getting inked.
"However, I really wanted my tattoo, so I went ahead and got it anyway. Thankfully, there weren't any problems in the end."
TNP reported back in 2009 that a student was forced to leave his school after getting a tattoo without his parents' knowledge.
Mr Kirby Lian, 40, a tattoo artist from Utopia Studios in Roxy Square 2 Shopping Centre along East Coast Road, confirmed that until now, there are no laws that tattoo artists have to abide by.
Cause for concern
Follow own house rules
He added that tattoo studios follow their own house rules with some, his included, refusing to tattoo students under 18.
Dr Leow Yung Hian, a senior consultant dermatologist at the National Skin Centre, remarked that he had never heard of UV tattoos before.
He added: " I would say it's best not to get a tattoo at all as it's permanent and could end up being a mark of regret."
One can imagine that this fad has given some parents cause for concern.
Ms Jaqueline Chiew, 47, a housewife and mother of two teenagers, did not even know about UV tattoos previously.
"As a parent, I disapprove of any forms of tattooing. It worries me that my kids might be able to get a tattoo without my knowledge."
Her sentiments are shared by another parent, who wanted to be known only as Mrs Tan.
The 47-year-old sales coordinator and mother of three daughters, aged 18, 20, and 22, said: "Of course, I'm worried. I'm against tattoos and would be really upset if my children got tattooed, especially without me knowing about it."
She added: "Whether it can be seen or not, it's a permanent mark on their bodies. For them to make a decision like this at such a young age, I don't think it's wise.
"Many of these people get tattoos to make a statement. There are other ways to get a message across other than marking it on your skin."
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