Paul Carter, a chef from Drexel Hill, is about to turn 40. He wants to change careers, go back to school, study to become a veterinarian.

But prospective employers can't get past the ink on his face.

"People stare at me, thinking I'm a gang member," Carter said. "I've lost out on jobs. They assume that I'm a hard-core killer."

Though Carter has a likable, easygoing manner, the skepticism isn't surprising.

"Outlaw" is emblazoned in 11/2-inch letters on his left forearm. A skull with burning red eyes glares back from his right. A long-sleeve shirt usually hides those.

But the letter "P" under his left eye, and the red-and-black cross topped with "RIP" on his right cheek - memorializing his late brother Peter - aren't so easy to conceal.

If his life was going to change, he knew, the facial ink would have to go.

30% of Americans

Tattoos have become so commonplace that what once was seen as an act of rebellion may go barely noticed in some quarters. About 30 percent of Americans have at least one tattoo. Among millennials, nearly half have had themselves indelibly inked.

But as tattoos have become ubiquitous, so has tattoo remorse. According to a 2015 Harris survey, nearly 1 in 4 Americans rues the tattoos. Last year, that regret fueled an $80 million industry in removals, up from $15 million in 2005.

In a 2013 national survey of hiring managers, 60 percent said a visible tattoo would limit a job applicant's odds of getting hired.

It's a common enough problem that career consultants have a name for tats on the face, neck and hands: job stoppers.

"Employers are prone to judge a book by its cover," said Vicki Salemi, a career coach for the job search website Monster.com. "For someone who has been passed over for jobs, removing them is the way to go."

Facial tattoos, in particular, carry a stigma. As Carter's prospective employers apparently have assumed, sometimes they do signify an alliance with a gang or other criminal activity. But not always.

The tattoo artist who inked a small cross under Justin Bieber's left eye last month told US Weekly that the pop star wanted it to symbolize "his journey in finding purpose with God."

Carter's facial tattoos were born out of grief for his brother, who was killed in a car accident in 2008.

A Norristown tattoo artist spent about 20 minutes inking Carter's face. Cost: about $100.

Removing the tattoos is taking considerably more time and money.

Every six weeks, Carter has trekked from his home in Drexel Hill to Tataway, a salon specializing in tattoo removal in Old City Philadelphia. He has had three sessions so far and expects to make the trip to the storefront at Third and Market Streets seven more times.

Carter hopes the tats will be gone by year's end. Total expected cost: $1,000.

"It's been an expensive mistake," he said. "I wish I had gotten those tats in a better place."

A blur of faded color

The human body's own enzymes will erode a tattoo over time, eventually turning a sharp illustration into a blur of faded color.

"You can see that in old military tattoos," said Mark Abdelmalek, who heads the division of laser and dermatologic surgery at Drexel University College of Medicine.

Abdelmalek likens the molecules of tattoo pigment to giant boulders under the skin. The ink is broken down slowly by enzymes or metabolized like bacteria and other foreign invaders and carried away by the lymphatic system.

"Think of it this way. Your body has a bunch of little Pac-Men who are dwarfed by the boulders, but can nibble away at the edges," Abdelmalek said.

But that would not happen quickly enough or thoroughly enough for someone such as Carter.

Until the late 1980s, there were two ways to get rid of an unwanted tattoo: A surgeon could cut it out with a scalpel, or a dermatologist could scrape it off with dermabrasion.

Both options are painful, and, especially if not expertly handled, can leave serious scars.

Enter the high-powered laser. Light, pulsing at a trillion times a second, pounds the "boulders" of pigment with so much energy that they are shattered into millions of smaller, gravel-like pieces.

"Then the Pac-Men gobble them up and deposit the pieces in the lymph nodes," Abdelmalek said. "The tattoo is still in your body. It's never really gone."

Most jobs require eight to 10 brief sessions. Abdelmalek said he turns away patients if he is not convinced they will finish the treatments.

"Once you start, the tattoo starts to fade," Abdelmalek said. "If you get only two sessions it's not gone, it's just a blurry tattoo."

The more contrast between the skin and the tattoo, the better. Darker-skinned patients are more difficult to treat because lasers can destroy melanin, the skin's natural pigment, and leave a ghostly shadow or scarring.

Though Carter is dark-skinned, the colors that are inked on his face, black and red, are among the easiest hues to erase. Notoriously difficult colors include yellows, pinks, and oranges.

But the letter "P" being so close to his eye adds a complication, as the laser can cause irreversible damage to the eye if the beam hits the iris.

Six trillion laser pulses

At Tataway's Old City storefront on a recent rainy Tuesday, owner Carmen Vanderheiden greeted Carter and his girlfriend, Sara Yoo, and ushered them to the back of the shop.

Carter lay on his back. A pair of metal goggles covered his eyes as he braced for the sting he knew was coming.

A technician gripped the business end of a $265,000 laser and traced the tattoo. Carter winced. About six trillion pulses and six seconds later, the letter "P" was covered by a temporary frost-like patina.

"It's like someone's pulling a rubber band as far as it can go and letting it snap against my face over and over and over," he said.

"With each session the pain gets worse, but it's worth it."

215-854-2796@samwoodiii