Program Lets Ex-Gang Members Lose Tattoos

Letters and insignia fade. The ink disappears. And as the tattoos are shed, so, too, go the gang-life sensibilities depicted.

As a youth, Jessie Dominguez of Arleta got drunk and got tattoos, he said. Now the 41-year-old former gang member and recent UCLA graduate in communications bares his skin to a laser. Assorted death imagery--such as skulls on his forearms, neck and shoulder blades--vanishes.

Like Dominguez, other former gang members seeking to inexpensively soften hardened personas are increasingly taking part in a tattoo-removal program organized through the Valley Violence Prevention Coalition, a group of 25 area nonprofit and community organizations.

Doctors volunteer to remove the tattoos on Saturdays. Most of the procedures are done at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center's outpatient diagnostic facility.

Nancy Jasso, chief dermatologist at Kaiser Permanente in Panorama City, said the required multiple treatments might otherwise cost the former gang members as much as $1,000 per visit.

"We can take an incredibly huge tattoo with many colors and leave them virtually scar free," Jasso said. "These tattoos are not only constant reminders, but they actually put [former gang members] at risk."

The program has "given us a new lease on life," Dominguez said. "My tattoos have always prevented me from getting a decent job."

Participants complete 16 hours of community service, undergo a blood test, and must demonstrate a commitment to avoiding gangs.

As for the required community service, "What we're trying to do is not just give participants a job where they're counting papers or something," said Sister June Wilkerson, the program's coordinator. "We want to broaden them."

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