Juan has been looking for a job for awhile, but his job search involves more than filling out applications.
It’s the resume on his body that is holding him back.
The young handyman spent eight years of his short life as a gang member in Reseda and bore the reminders in a variety of colors and designs.
Once tattooed on his arms, neck (from ear to Adam’s Apple) and chest, he was giving up another Saturday morning to have the reminders of his former life taken away.
When he came to the program, the young handyman had too many tattoos to count; badges of honor and belonging to his homeboys. But he knew to gain acceptance from the business world, he’d have to get rid of or hide them.
Since 1998, the Providence Tattoo Removal Program has helped people turn their lives around by removing visible gang-related or anti-social tattoos. The treatments – which can be as short as a few visits to a years-long commitment – are provided free by a team of doctors and nurses who volunteer their time and skills.
Juan showed a visitor where he had tattoos when he first came to Providence, pointing all the way around his body. He’s been coming to the program since 2003 and the doctor’s work still isn’t done.
”This one will take a long time because of the red ink,” he explained, pointing at his arm.
An average black ink tattoo will require five to eight treatments, with four to six week intervals between them. Ink color, depth of the ink in the skin and type of tattoo are all factors that may increase the number of treatments needed.
On the day we visited, the doctor told a young woman that her homemade tattoo may never come off. Repeated applications of the laser, which fires short bursts of light at the ink, “exploding” it into smaller particles that are absorbed by the body, were not working.
“It should frost over,” he said, peering at the Old English letters spelling out a family name down her forearm. “I’m getting nothing. This may be in too deep.”
While he worked on one patient after another, the doctor was quick to make a joke to put his patients at ease and relieve some of the fear in their eyes.
The doctor, a prominent Beverly Hills plastic surgeon, is one of more than a dozen who rotate in to the clinic that runs nearly every Saturday. Nurses and assistants, who prep the patients by rubbing topical anesthetic on the tattoos before they see the doctors and apply Vaseline and gauze after the laser has done its work, also donate their time. Patients “pay” for the free services by doing community service at the clinic or in their neighborhoods, as well as going to school to finish diplomas or get GED certificates.
The program was targeted as “pork” by critics of the federal budget that was passed early in 2009 because a $200,000 grant for a second laser machine was requested by Congressman Howard Berman, but it’s anything but a money waster. Annually, 12,000 treatments are completed and 80 percent of those treated have succeeded in finding a new job or obtaining a promotion.
The line at the laser room moved quickly. Treatments only take a minute or two, but are dramatic. Black tattoos on Caucasian skin “frost” or turn white when the laser blasts are applied, fading the letters or drawings that clients often called “mistakes.” A man in his 40s had his 10-year old son come into the room with him and don special glasses to protect his eyes.
”I want him to see that this is a big deal to take these off and that it was a mistake to have them put on,” he said, as the doctor zapped a name scrawled across his neck. The youngster’s eyes widened at each bright laser burst that brought smoke from his father’s skin.
The message was clearly getting across.
Hispanic and African-American clients have to ice down the tattooed areas before the laser can be used, because the laser will have a whitening effect, leaving them with a negative image on their bodies and defeating the purpose.
After getting his treatment, Juan smiled broadly and stopped to visit with a young woman at the front desk.
“I can walk free in the streets and, well, keep walking forward,” he said. He’s tried to get other former friends to straighten up, but admits the program is not for everyone. For the time being, he doesn’t mind getting up early to be the first in line at the clinic.
Along with the gang, he’s also left behind a problem that he believes got him in trouble in the first place – alcohol.
“I used to drink too much, be drunk in public, but I was never violent,” he said. “Now, I get up in the morning and drink a glass of milk. Sometimes I add chocolate.”
Tiffany, whose homemade tattoo was giving the doctor a challenge, winced as he tried again, but showed a steely determination to turn things around.
“I’m 21 and on parole,” she explained. “I spent 8 months in prison for second-degree burglary and I’ve been a gang banger for a long time. I loved gang banging, the rush and I loved to fight.”
She said her 4-year old son was the reason she wanted to change.
“My mom and dad adopted him because I was too much into my addiction to take care of him. I was never there for him, but now I want to change that.”
She said her biggest fear is that the boy will be playing in the front yard and be shot. “I’m not setting myself up for that again.”
Although her son lives with her parents, who are both former gang members, Tiffany lives in a halfway house and is working to turn her life around as well as those around her. She’s a former honors student who left it all behind to take up the gang life.
“My brother is following in my footsteps, but not in a good way right now,” she said. “He’s still in a gang, but I know I can’t help him until I help myself.”
She has three other tattoos she’d like removed and knows she’ll be back at least nine more times.
“It hurts,” she said. “But I did this to myself.”
At her residential facility, she works with a lot of young people and is quick to spread the word that gangs are not the way to go.
“I ask them, why are you doing this?” she said. “The reality is that when you’re busted, your ‘homes’ aren’t there for you. My mom was always there for me, always visiting me. Your parents just want the best for you and they’re stressing out all day not knowing if we’re dead or alive. You could be doing so much in life, but instead, you’re gang banging.”
When the doctor finished, she saw a fearful young man about to enter the room – maybe for his first time. As she passed him in the doorway, she touched his arm and said “It doesn’t hurt” and walked down to the next room.
For more information on the Providence Tattoo Removal Program, visit firstname.lastname@example.org.