PALM DESERT, Calif. - Once a rare sight, tattoos have become a big part of today's modern world. In fact, some argue tattoo artists can now do with ink what some of the greats did with paint. But could this body art be hiding something deadly?
"I decided to tattoo my life story on me," said Marlin Perez.
People have been getting tattoos for nearly 5,000 years. From status symbols to portraits, tattoos have become their own art form.
"Real delicate, it almost looks like you've been born with it," said Contrast Tattoo Studios owner Chris Almeida.
As beautiful as they can be, tattoos are apart of your skin, skin that can become cancerous.
"It is crucial, catch it early and it can save your life," said Dermatologist Dr. Timothy Jochen.
However, detecting it early can be a challenge. Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, often presents itself as black. Black just happens to be the most popular color for tattoos.
"It will be really hard to detect if you have a melanoma on a tattoo that is black," said Dr. Jochen.
That's exactly what happened to a 29 year old in Germany. Malignant melanoma was found on his skin while getting a tattoo removed, according to a recent study on JAMA Dermatology.
"If you detect it early they are curable, if you let them go too long they will metastasize and kill you, so [you] want to get them evaluated as quickly as possible," said Dr. Jochen.
"I really don't think too much about skin cancer to be honest with you," said Perez.
"It's actually never really crossed my mind," said Almeida.
Dr. Jochen says it should. The concern is mostly tattoos on or around moles.
"That really is the big key, where you have moles you want to be very careful with that when you have tattoos placed around them or if you already have the tattoo you just want to get those moles evaluated periodically to make sure they are not changing," said Dr. Jochen.
Chris Almeida has been tattooing for 11 years and says he will go out of his way to stay away from moles.
"I learned from my mentor not to tattoo over moles, it could be cancerous," said Almeida. "If it's a portrait of say Marilyn Monroe we try to incorporate the mole, make it look like her mole, or if the tattoo is going to be going over it, we try and suggest that we move it."
That's especially important for people who live in the desert.
"A lot of skin cancer out here. There is a huge population with skin cancer out here," said Dr. Jochen.
Dr. Jochen says he saw about 2,000 cases of skin cancer last year, a hundred of them melanoma.
"We have a very active population that are out in the sun, so the more sun you have, the more sunburns you have, the more moles you have, are all things that increase your risk of developing a melanoma," said Dr. Jochen.
It's also not just the elderly who are affected.
"We have people in their teens develop melanoma, people in the 20s, 30s, really the whole gammit," said Dr. Jochen.
Getting checked at least once a year, Dr. Jochen says, is the best way to protect yourself.
"It's really important that if you are going to get a tattoo done to actually have an examination first to make sure that you don't have any unusual marks because melanoma is kind of, in most cases, has signs that you can detect before it gets worse," said Dr. Jochen.
If you take care of your tattoos, you will also be protecting your skin.
"I suggest taking care of your tattoos forever. Suncreen helps in the sun, protecting it keeping it bright and colorful," said Almeida.
"I stay covered up all of the time and I don't get in the sunlight," said Perez. "You pay so much money for them you need to take care of them, the last thing you want to do is get something beautiful on you and watch it completely fade."
Or watch it turn into something that kills thousands of Americans each year.