Removing Tattoos From Gang Members

Two decades after quitting the California gang she created, Christina Ojeda still felt ashamed of the gang insignia she had tattooed on her hand — a butterfly on top of a rose.

In her job as a substitute teacher and when praying at church, Ojeda tried to hide the symbol of her former life with a Band-Aid. “I felt the whole world was looking at me,” she recalls.

But thanks to tattoo-removal programs sponsored by city police departments and county health programs in cities throughout the nation, former gang members like Ojeda can get a clean slate — literally.

Ojeda went to one such program in San Jose, Calif.

“It is now completely gone,” she says.

Now, a new method to remove tattoos might make it easier for former gang members to become more mainstream members of society.

Dr. Tolbert Wilkinson, a plastic surgeon from San Antonio, Texas, says he has improved a method, called infrared coagulation, that can help remove the tattoos most common among gang members because their images are usually not professionally done and are easier to remove. He reported his work at the annual conference of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons meeting in Los Angeles this week.

Programs Widespread Since the mid-1990s, doctors, law enforcement officials and gang members have been participating in tattoo-removal programs in such cities as St. Louis, Phoenix, and West Palm Beach, Fla. While some programs freely offer the removal service, others require community service in exchange for the procedure.

Some have also expanded to allow people who were not gang members but simply have “tattoo regret” to use the service, often for a fee.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with tattoos, unless it ties you to a lifestyle that you’re trying to give up,” says Wilkinson, who began a tattoo-removal program using the infrared coagulator in Bandera, Texas, and has since removed tattoos from around 3,000 people.

The device Wilkinson uses is a small portable system that employs a pen-like beam of infrared radiation to heat the tattoo area, creating a scab that eventually peels off. Treatment requires approximately one, two or three visits, at about $5 a session.

The price is considerably less than laser treatment, which doctors use to remove professional tattoos that have a more concentrated amount of ink. Laser removal can take from four to 12 treatments and can cost as much as $7,000. Lasers use three beams of colored light to break up the particles of color of the tattoo into small pieces that the skin can then expel.

Both methods require a topical anesthetic to deal with the pain.

Help Unwanted Gang members often find that highly noticeable insignias on their hands, arms, necks and even faces — once a sign of inclusion in the gang — can prevent them from enlisting in the military or moving beyond a low-paying job, Wilkinson says.

“Usually,” Wilkinson explains, “they want to get a job beyond dishwasher and realize no one will hire them with a swastika on their arm.”

“That’s a red flag to an employer,” agrees Juan Avila, supervisor of San Jose’s “Clean Slate” program, which removed Ojeda’s tattoo. Since his city’s laser-removal program began in 1994, it has relied on city funding and volunteer medical staff to remove tattoos from more than 500 former gang members aged 14 to 25 years old.

A Lot of Demand Many of the programs have long waiting lists of people desperate for the service, which would cost thousands of dollars in their local doctor’s office.

“I’ve seen people who used hot irons, knives or poured acid on their tattoos to get rid of them,” Wilkinson says. “They said, ‘If we’d have known this program was here, we never would have tried to burn off the tattoo.’”

According to a survey done last year by the Bandera Police Department, 95 percent of the former gang members who had tattoos removed are now drug-free and employed, Wilkinson says.

The Texas attorney general’s office received a $90,000 grant to expand the Bandera infrared coagulation tattoo removal program by early next year to 14 cities throughout the state, including Austin, Corpus Christi, San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston, says Pam Miller, senior adviser to the juvenile crime intervention division.

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