Visible tattoos on the face, hands and neck can be especially stigmatizing to those trying to leave behind their gang pasts. Removal can cost as much as $1,000 per visit and the laser treatments can take three to five visits. Gov. Pete Wilson recently awarded a grant to the Hollywood Sunset Free Clinic for its tattoo removal program, significantly expanding its current project. The program offers free tattoo removal for at-risk young adults who pledge to do 30 hours of community service.
MAURA E. MONTELLANO spoke with several participants in the free clinic program about their decision to remove their tattoos.
17, freshman at Nathaniel Narbonne High School, Harbor City
I joined a gang when I was 13 and I got the tattoos because I wanted to be cool like my friends. I didn't really know what I was getting or what it represented, I just got them--on my hands, my neck and my back. At that time I didn't think the tattoos would ever be a problem. I didn't think of the future. It wasn't until I decided to go back to school and people told me to remove or hide the tattoos so I wouldn't have problems with other gangs.
I finally decided to quit the gang and have the tattoos taken off because I began to think of the future. I also knew my mother was not very happy with the choices I'd made. I felt bad about that. She sent me to Mexico for a while and I had time to think about things.
Through a friend, I would hear that this person was shot, that person went to jail and it just made me realize it was right to get out of the gang. Now I feel better about myself since I've had the tattoos on my neck and hand removed. I can go out in public without being worried about who is going to see me.
I have actually talked a lot of people out of getting tattoos. I just tell them it's a bad idea. People automatically look at you and think bad of you when you have tattoos even when you're not in a gang. Now I can get on with my life.
42, East Los Angeles, supervisor, import/export business
I was about 15 when I got my tattoos. My gang affiliation didn't last long, only a year, but it was the worst year of my life. I was shot at and stabbed. I was nearly killed and I did things that I would rather not talk about. I'm thankful that I got out when I did. I have always been ashamed of these tattoos and have wanted to remove them for a long time but the biggest problem has been the expense.
When I went looking for jobs I had to hide them. I knew there were times I was not hired because of the tattoos. Even now people think I am a veterano, an old gangster, when I'm not. Tattoos give that impression no matter who you are. Having them removed makes a major difference in my life. It makes me feel better about myself. It makes me look better at work. I won't have to hide them with Band-Aids anymore. I can go swimming without being ashamed of people seeing them. No one will ask questions about them or me. I have a young son and I don't want him to know that I was in a gang.
I have seen a lot of young men turned away for jobs simply because of visible tattoos and their appearance. You could be the most qualified for the job but these things will hold you back. I guarantee it. There is nothing cool about tattoos. They brand you for life.
26, Long Beach
I was part of a white supremacy gang when I was 13. The tattoo was sort of like a stamp, a logo. I got the name of the gang and the number 13 tattooed on my hands. I never thought my life would take the turn that it eventually did. I always thought my life would be the way it was, which wasn't too good. I was basically living for the day.
I finally decided to have the tattoos removed because it was very discouraging trying to get a job with tattoos on your hands. You know that they are going to ask about the tattoos. I've had potential employers tell me to my face that they wouldn't hire me because of them. Getting my life back on the right track meant many changes; the tattoo removal was one of them.
When you're finally trying to make a living, you have to take what's available. Even working in fast food you have to work with your hands, so there is no hiding them.
I brag about having the tattoos removed because to me it's a major accomplishment. I looked forward to having them all removed. I sometimes look at my hands and can't believe they're gone. I have been out of the gang for a long time but this was what was left of that life.
30, salesman, Gardena
I was very young when I started getting tattoos but it wasn't for a gang. I got them because I liked art. It was a way to express myself. At some point I did start getting tattoos for my gang, to show where I was from. It represented my neighborhood. In those days, I was living for the moment. The future never crossed my mind. I decided to have the tattoos removed from my hands because first impressions are the most important ones. I can go any place for a job with my skills but the first thing they see are my tattoos. I can try every trick to get the job but it's the tattoos that will leave a lasting impression. Having them removed will give me a better chance in life. It's all about appearances. I have walked around with a tank top, my tattoos in full view, and I know people feel intimidated. In the long run, tattoos will determine how the rest of society looks at you. You can't just take an eraser and remove them.
Those sports stars and celebrities who get tattoos don't realize that kids see this. You get youngsters who you would never have imagined getting a tattoo, getting one.