(13 Sep 2017) LEADIN:
Tattoo artists are helping people with the skin condition vitiligo by using ink to cover the white patches which are caused by a lack of melanin.
Many patients feel stigmatised, distressed and isolated by the condition and are turning to tattooing as a last resort.
Irene Flores looks at her face in the mirror to see how much progress the tattoo artist has made to mask the white patches which cover her face.
Flores has vitiligo, a long-term condition that causes pale, white patches to develop on the skin as the body’s pigment making cells are destroyed.
There are a number of treatments available, such as light therapy used in conjunction with some drugs, but the effects of vitiligo are permanent and there is no medication available to stop it spreading, or to prevent it re-occurring.
According to the Vitiligo Research Foundation’s website “it affects one in every hundred people and can strike anyone at any time, often leading to depression and isolation – especially amongst children.”
Before coming to this tattoo artist, Flores tried to cover the marks that cross her forehead, cheek and lips with camouflaging creams prescribed by dermatologists.
But this wasn’t suitable because the heat of the oven in the bakery where she works, melts the cream.
She says: “I think that for people (like myself) who have a job it is a little uncomfortable and I think it is cruel too, because this (vitiligo) happens to the people who (like myself) don’t have a lot of money. Particularly in El Alto (a city near La Paz), there are a lot of people (with vitiligo), especially in the lips, I see (them). There are a lot, (who have vitiligo) in their fingers. So I understand (the disease) and I see as something normal but some (people) and even some uneducated kids say “why is she like that? What does she have?” So it’s a little (difficult). They think it is contagious, now that I remember.”
Flores turned to tattooing after losing patience with other options to mask the effects of vitiligo.
“So many fights (treatments) I had but none of them worked out and since I work I don’t have time to go to (doctors’ appointments). I failed (at going to the doctor) and maybe that’s why (I prefer the tattoo treatment). Because (the doctor) would tell me to go certain day and I couldn’t go. And that’s where I stand, it has been 20 years that I have that (vitiligo).”
A programme by run by tattoo artists in Bolivia seeks to help people with the condition.
Flores admits it’s more painful than the dentist and causes her skin to swell, but she claims it’s the best she has felt in twenty years.
Tattoo designer Enrique Castro says: “With tattoos you see faster results. With the medical treatments, even if they could help, they take a minimum of five years. I always ask all the people I see what emotional state they are in, how they feel. You have to analyse the person to know how they will react.”
According to Castro: “It’s a technique that is not abrasive, it’s very superficial, it’s applied only on the top part of the skin. What we try to do is to inject the pigment delicately, as if it were a shade, so to speak.”
Awareness about the condition grew after the former pop singer Michael Jackson revealed he had it in the early 1990s.
Carina Borda, another client of Castro says: “It’s an alternative, as last resort, and even though it’s painful I think it works quite well. I think it’s a very good initiative.”
Doctors argue that good results can’t be guaranteed with tattooing and some fear it may even exacerbate the problem.
Back in the tattoo parlour, Irene Flores has no regrets.
“Pasada de gato” translates literally as “a cat’s pass” and it refers to doing something very quickly.
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