Stains of the past
Local tattoo removal programs offer former gang members a blank slate
By Matthew Singer 04/10/2008
Of all the tattoos Sharon Troll has seen in her life — and, despite her pleasant demeanor, she has seen a lot — none irritate her more than the three little dots. Which is surprising, considering some of the grotesque illustrations that walk through the doors of the West Ventura Urgent Care Center every month to take advantage of the Boys & Girls Club’s Tattoo Removal Program. Demonic skulls, spiders, naked women, various gang insignia, swastikas and neo-Nazi lightning bolts, etched everywhere from between the fingers to the back of the head, are frequent sights. But when Troll sees that tiny, triangular formation, signifying mi vida loca (“my crazy life”) in the visual language of Latino street gangs, she insists it come off first.
“The young ones start with the dots,” she says. “If they don’t want to remove them, then they’re not really ready to come out of the lifestyle.”
Helping people “come out of the lifestyle” is why Troll established this program in 1998, one of only two in Ventura County. She considers tattoo removal a vital step for those looking to detach from lives previously defined by negative behavior, to literally and symbolically erase their past and start over again. In a doctor’s office, removing a tattoo can be an expensive procedure, costing up to $250 per square inch. The programs in Ventura and Santa Paula perform the service for free, subsisting entirely on volunteers and donations. Otherwise, those looking to change may never have them removed, never be given a chance to enter mainstream society, and never escape their personal whirlpool of violence and crime.
Or, even worse, they might resort to homemade means of removal: scarring the area with acid; burning it with lit cigarettes; cutting the patch of skin off. The programs provide a more sanitary method, though it is debatable if it is less painful. A laser is used to administer what is essentially a second-degree burn; depending on the amount of ink, it can take up to five separate visits to fully expunge the marking. Ask any of the 25 patients at the Urgent Care on April 6 and most will admit, without hesitation, that it hurts a lot more to have a tattoo taken off than it does to put it on.
Lucy is one of the people who can attest to the pain. Her “crazy life” hit the wall two years ago, when she was arrested on charges of assault and forgery and lost custody of her three daughters. Now on probation, she is working in a medical office, putting her “minor OCD” to use filing records, and has regained guardianship of her children. One of the caveats of keeping them is removing the tattoos tethering her to the culture she is trying to leave behind. She has already gotten rid of a few: the Dallas Cowboys star on her neck and the “COxCH” on her right middle finger — references to the Colonia Chiques, Oxnard’s biggest gang — and the large pot leaf framed by the words “Blaze It” and the letters “ABG,” initials belonging to her “friend” (she is trying not to say “homie” anymore). But she is far from being lasered clean. A tribal-style design still wraps around her left arm; the phrase “Don’t Let No One Get You Down,” inspired by the title of a WAR song, arches down across her collar like a necklace.
And then there is “Jose.” An ex-boyfriend and gang member, his name is branded above her left breast. Lucy realizes it is time to say goodbye. Jill Forman, one of the registered nurses donating her Sunday afternoon to the program, is happy to lend a hand in her bidding him adieu. A drug and alcohol counselor and onetime recipient of the laser treatment herself, Forman knows about new beginnings, and how important removing tattoos can be in letting go of the past.
“A lot of them have jailhouse tattoos,” she says, “and when you see this prison shit that identifies them as prison people, and they’re so visible, they’re never going to get anywhere in life with them.”
Lucy pulls back her shirt, and Forman takes aim at the tattoo with an object resembling a giant novelty pen. As Forman traces the cursive lettering, Ruth Friedman, also a nurse, follows with a tube, sucking up the trail of burnt skin. When the laser, which emits such a bright flash of light everyone in the room must wear tinted goggles, zaps a molecule of ink, the device lets out a series of rapid pops. Forman compares the feeling to being splattered with hot grease while cooking bacon — except, while the body’s natural inclination in that situation is to move away, patients must sit still and absorb it. She says every individual has a different pain threshold: During today’s session, a teenage girl will barely flinch as the nurses remove a name from her wrist (yet another “Jose”), while a man with a scalp full of Southside Chiques-related symbols will tell Forman to stop after only a few seconds and ask to go to the back of the line.
Lucy reacts by gripping the arms of the chair she is sitting in. Her face squinches up, her toes curl into her sandals. After barely more than a minute, Forman is finished. “Jose” is little more than a scar now, a memory in the act of fading. As Friedman covers the area with salve and gauze, Lucy breathes a calming sigh.
“My husband is going to be so proud of me,” she proclaims.
If Sharon Troll recoils at the sight of the three dots on grown men and women, imagine what her reaction would be to seeing them on a child. Sadly, Martin Hernandez doesn’t have to wonder how he would react. As a volunteer coordinator for the Santa Paula Tattoo Removal Program, he has heard a lot of reasons for why people choose to remove a tattoo — to get a job, to get into the military, because of the terms of their probation, because they’re tired of hiding it from their kids, because it reminds them of an abusive relationship — but nothing rattled him as much as when a woman brought in her 4-year-old son and said she was worried about him getting teased in kindergarten.
“This little boy, his dad was in a gang, and one day [the father] thought it would be cool to put the three dots on his hand,” Hernandez says. After separating from the father, the mother decided to have it removed. “It was a little sketchy, but we gave him enough support.”
Hernandez has been with the Santa Paula program since it began 10 years ago, starting around the same time as the one in Ventura. It was created by Supervisor Kathy Long at the behest of local probation officers. “I was talking to them about rather than having money, what tools would be helpful with clients, and they said removing tattoos,” Long says. “When young people make a decision to change their life and they want to get rid of the tattoos, it’s expensive to do so. So I worked on getting doctors to donate their time. It was more successful than I anticipated.” Unlike the Ventura program — which in the last few years has limited removals to markings related to gangs, white supremacist groups, or “anything that would indicate to society that somebody has been in trouble or is looking for trouble,” according to Troll — it removes any type of tattoo. But, also unlike Ventura, it does ask its patients for something in return: 40 hours of community service between treatments.
“All we ask is you give back to your own community by volunteering in the community,” says Hernandez, who is also Long’s administrative assistant. According to a study he conducted for the Supervisors Office, Hernandez says for every dollar the Ventura County Public Health Department (VCPHD) who aid in funding the program, spend on maintenance for the machine and supplies, $20-$30 is returned to the county through the volunteerism. “So it’s a win-win.”
Troll says her program does not require such a commitment simply because it would be too great of a logistical nightmare to confirm its patients are doing what they claim. Although both programs are dependent upon the willingness of professionals to work a few hours out of the month for free, the Santa Paula program has the backing of agencies such as VCPHD, the Sheriff’s Department, the county Probation Agency and CalWORKS. Ventura’s, meanwhile, is primarily Troll’s operation. It began through a grant from the California Gang Violence Suppression program. The idea came out of Troll’s experience working for the Boys & Girls Club.
“I know how people react to tattoos. I know how I felt before I started working with our youth. I would look down on them, and that’s what they expect, not what they should get,” she says. “It reaffirms that they’ve chosen the right path, like, ‘You don’t like me, lady? You’re mad doggin’ me? I’ll tell you what, I’ll make your life miserable.’ ”
State funding has since gone away, leaving Troll to apply for grants to keep their machine — which is as old as the program — running. Occasionally, patients will bring by gauze, salve and medical tape, as tokens of appreciation. If supplies get really low, sometimes Troll will ask those in the waiting room to pool together their money for a run to the store. The only help the program receives from the county is the use of the Urgent Care Center, for which Troll is grateful. But other than that, she has found that government institutions generally do not view these programs as crucial.
“Tattoo removal is not a favorite thing for the government to fund,” she says. “I guess they figure, ‘If they paid to get them on, they can pay to get them off.’ ”
Despite those minor differences in function, however, the programs in Ventura and Santa Paula ultimately share the same mission. Though some patients — usually minors — agree to the treatment only to appease a judge or a probation officer or their parents, the majority are coming because they are sincerely ready to sever ties to the person they used to be.
“Ninety-nine percent of time, they realize they have a wife now, or they just got out of prison, or they have a little boy or little girl, they have a family, and maybe before that was all around it was OK, but now they need to let [their past] go, and this is a reminder,” Hernandez says. “They realize, ‘I need to change my life, I need to get a job, I need to live in the mainstream.’ They’ve had an epiphany that their choice of lifestyle was stupid. Either the light is on or the light is off, either they’re in or out, and when they’re out they want it completely erased.”
But Troll says it is not always a simple in-or-out proposition. For a few, there are admitted mixed feelings. While she agrees most gang members who come to have their tattoos removed have grown out of the lifestyle and wish to change their lives, detaching from the life they had before can be difficult, either because it means leaving others behind.
“For some of them, it’s a tough thing,” she says. “They’ve buried gang members who are good friends or relatives, and they have ‘R.I.P.’ and dates and stuff. It’s hard to let go, but they know it has got to go. You can watch them anguish over that. Their souls hurt for the loss of person, but they’ve made a choice and they’re moving forward.”
Moving forward — that is Agustin’s mantra these days. Or, in his words, staying “effective.” “I want to be an effective individual,” he says. “I want to be more effective for God, and for business.” It has only been three years since he decided to become a more effective person. Leaving the gang he ran with in Northern California was easy, he says. Ditching the drugs, however, was another story. It took a religious intervention to put him on a straight and sober course. And it is an opportunity to make money that convinced him to finally purge himself of his tattoos.
He currently works for an upholstery company whose clients, he claims, are rich people — sometimes even movie stars. The owner of the company is considering opening a storefront in Malibu, and Agustin, already too familiar with the suspicious glares of those who have lives of privilege he cannot even comprehend, recognizes that he needs to clean up his image if he wants to remain employed, remain on a path of effectiveness. He walks into the lasering room, an enthusiasm for the process replacing the reticence of those who know how unpleasant it feels. He lifts the sleeves of his gray sweater; his arms are covered. Troll encourages patients to remove as many tattoos in a sitting as determined medically safe by the nurses, but for a first-timer such as Agustin, Forman and Friedman decide to save the arms for next month — those can be disguised by clothing, after all — and instead do the spider web on the top of his right hand.
Friedman perches in front of him and readies the laser. Pop pop pop pop pop. His face remains stoic, until his lips curl back slightly to reveal tightly clenched teeth. His legs wrap around each other and he pulls them beneath the chair. But he never asks her to stop.
Agustin stares approvingly at the mass of fried skin, nodding his head. Then he smiles. “I’m bad, ain’t I?”
The Santa Paula Tattoo Removal Program holds its monthly removal clinic on April 19 [Date corrected from an earlier version of this story and the print edition] at the Santa Paula Medical Clinic (1334 E. Main St.). For more information, call 933-1242.