Dressed in a white T-shirt and baggy jeans, he sat in a Beverly Hills doctor’s office, nonchalantly sucking on a lollipop and displaying the tattoo on his forearm for anyone who asked to have a look.
Beneath the bravado, however, was a hint of waiting room fear.
“That kid over there said they take your skin and just cut the whole thing off, like this,” said the 17-year-old, pinching the skin on his wrist between his fingers. “That’s why I asked to go last. I might change my mind.”
He eventually went through with the surgery, one of 13 youths--most of them former gang members--who volunteered on Tuesday to have their tattoos removed by a laser technique. The teen-agers were from the Optimist Youth Home in Highland Park, a treatment center that serves about 120 boys and a few girls who have been arrested for criminal offenses ranging from auto theft to sexual assault.
The procedures were performed by Dr. Frank Ryan, a cosmetic surgeon who counts celebrities and models among his regular clientele. Many of the youths who visited Ryan on Tuesday said they hoped the removal of their tattoos would help them change their lives.
“This will help me to get a job,” said one 17-year-old. “They want you to look clean.”
Said another, referring to job interviews: “A tattoo blows it right there.”
As they waited for their turn, the youths sported their markings crafted by “homies” who fashion makeshift tattoo guns using the electric motors from hand-held cassette players, guitar string and pins dipped in black or green ink. The tattoos ranged from gang symbols to a figure smoking marijuana to the name of one youth’s mother.
Many youths had three tiny dots, arranged in a triangle, on the backs of their hands. Asked what the dots meant, one 15-year-old former gang member said: “My crazy life. It means you don’t care, you know?”
Letting go of their tattoos is no easy decision for most gang members, many of whom spend years earning the right (“marking up credits”) to wear gang symbols by fighting--even shooting--rivals. One 14-year-old said it took him three years before he was tattooed with the symbol of the 18th Street gang in Los Angeles on the backs of his fingers.
“I know this one kid who got a tattoo before he earned it and (other gang members) cut it off,” said a 17-year-old who had been a member of an Inland Empire white supremacist gang.
By agreeing to remove the markings, a physically painful surgery for some, these youths are taking a significant step away from the gang lifestyle, according to social workers.
“What I look for is different signs of when they’re ready to get out, and when they reach that point of readiness, the symbols don’t mean too much anymore,” said Armando Morales, a professor in the department of psychology at UCLA’s School of Medicine.
Although the teen-agers from the Optimist Home talked about their plans for the future--the 17-year-old from the Inland Empire, for example, is considering art school and a career in body tattooing--several said they were reluctant to cut their gang ties entirely.
“I’m not going to gangbang like I used to,” said one. “But I’m always going to be from somewhere, my neighborhood.”