Julie Arellano giggled as a dermatologist steered a laser beam across the skin of her back for the third time since February.
The 17-year-old chuckled and wriggled as the black script between her shoulder blades that proclaims “The Last Laugh Is Mine” turned a hot, raw pink during a procedure that causes such tattoos, over a period of months and several painful treatments, to fade away.
“Quit laughing. It’s like working in an earthquake,” Burbank-based dermatologist Jeff Ashley said with a smile as he attacked pigment injected into Arellano when she was 15 and a member of the Bryant Street gang in Northridge.
The Chatsworth High School senior, flat on her stomach atop an examining room table, and the doctor, standing at her side, wore shaded goggles to shield their eyes from cornea damage as the laser inflicted a sharp sting described as rubber bands snapping against the skin.
“I’m just laughing so it won’t hurt,” Arellano said.
But Linda Wong, a second dermatologist on hand, offered another possible explanation for the patient’s good humor: “She’s just living up to her tattoo.”
Down the hall on that recent Saturday morning, Jerry Roman waited to undergo the same procedure for the first time.
On Roman’s left forearm are the words “trust no one” tattooed in Japanese characters. “I want to be trustful,” Roman, 25, said. “So I want to get it burned off.”
On that same arm, a 5-inch-high Grim Reaper hoists his sickle above an eight ball the size of a golf ball.
During three separate stints in jail on charges ranging from assault with a deadly weapon to conspiracy to murder, Roman said fellow inmates mixed soot with toothpaste and water and injected the solution into his skin with a straightened staple to create six of his nine gang-related tattoos.
Like Arellano, Roman came to Providence Holy Cross Medical Center to have gang tattoos removed for free in exchange for community service.
More than 80 teens and adults, all current or former gang members, have signed up for the program since its February launch. It is funded by the hospital and run by the Valley Violence Prevention Coalition, a group of 25 organizations that work with at-risk youths.
A similar program operates in Panorama City and others are taking hold across Los Angeles and around the state. The California Youth Authority recently awarded grants to aid the development of similar free laser treatment programs at the Hollywood Sunset Free Clinic and San Francisco General Hospital. A CYA program is already operating at Loma Linda University.
As he waited his turn, Roman talked about ending his 12-year involvement with the Virginia Street Locals, a Hollywood gang.
“I’m just taking it step by step,” said Roman, who has the area code 213 tattooed behind his left ear. “Once I get this done, I’ll probably decide to go down there [to Hollywood] and get jumped out.”
In many gangs, tradition holds that members who wish to leave must be “jumped out,” or beaten, by fellow gangbangers. For Roman, that is one step. Others include shielding his 7-year-old daughter from the pitfalls of gang life and getting a job, he said.
In preparation for the first laser treatment, a nurse numbed Roman’s various tattoos, applying trace amounts of lidocaine locally. When the treatment ended, Roman hopped from the examining room table and shook Ashley’s hand.
The dermatologist smiled. “Thanks for trusting me,” the doctor said.
For many gang members drifting from involvement like Roman, and for ex-gangbangers seeking employment, gang-related tattoos often bar admission to a new way of life. And the tattoos sustain the risk of violent attack at the hands of former rivals who regard such markings as enemy labels.
With visible gang tattoos, “You’re looking at a possible shooting,” said Sgt. Belinda Robinson, a Los Angeles Police Department officer from the Foothill Division who works with at-risk Valley teenagers at three schools.
When patients arrive to literally erase past mistakes, laser beams set at particular wavelengths explode the particles of ink (or soot and toothpaste) used to create tattoo designs.
The more colors in a tattoo, the more treatments needed. Simple black tattoos require one or two treatments before the body fully flushes the pigment from the skin, doctors said. Some tattoos require 10 treatments before pigments fade completely.
Since laser treatments can cost as much as $1,000 per visit and as many as 10 visits might be required to remove one tattoo, the procedure is generally something low-income teens and young adults cannot afford, said Sister June Wilkerson, a Dominican nun who sits on the coalition’s committee of directors and runs its tattoo-removal program.
“Tattoos are barriers,” said Milton Braswell, a prevention and victim services specialist for the Youth Authority. “If one wants to make a step or get employment, it would be beneficial to not have a tattoo.”
In the Panorama City tattoo-removal program, free treatments have benefited residents of struggling Blythe Street, which dissects one of the Valley’s poorest neighborhoods.
Since last fall, 25 ex-members of the Blythe Street Dukes have had tattoos removed, according to Sister Margaret Rose Welch, a member of the Immaculate Heart Community that coordinates the effort.
Administrators of all these programs suggest that participants perform their community service by interacting with schoolchildren, aiding the police or helping with the hospital care of others.
“What we’re trying to do is not just give participants a job where they’re counting papers or something,” Wilkerson said. “We want to broaden them.”
Arellano, who, despite her tattoos, found work selling shoes at Kids Footlocker in the Northridge Fashion Center, mentors younger girls at Lawrence Middle School in Chatsworth, warning them about the perils of gang life.
Roman said he hopes to volunteer in some capacity at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center in Sylmar, while he finishes computer software and business courses at the North Valley Occupational-Pacoima Skills Center in Mission Hills.
Following his first laser treatment at Providence Holy Cross, Michael, another participant who requested his last name be withheld, found himself encouraged to talk with elementary schoolchildren about gangs.
The 35-year-old North Hollywood resident said he knows all too well the dangers of gang insignia.
Seven men attacked and beat Michael two months ago outside a Los Angeles supermarket after they allegedly mistook him for an active rival, he said, pointing to the resulting scars atop his shaven head.
“One of them tried to stab me,” Michael said.
The broad “diesiocho” that spans the back of Michael’s neck is a version of the Spanish word for “18,” representing his bygone membership in the 18th Street gang in Los Angeles.
Michael said that as a younger man he was stabbed 17 times in the back with an ice pick and took a bullet from rivals at the age of 20.
At the time of the most recent attack, Michael had been out of his old gang for 13 years, he said. Something had to be done.
Something was. Michael barely flinched as the laser connected.
“That hurt like a son of a gun,” he said after his first treatment. “It didn’t hurt as much as getting shot, but it hurt.”
For more information about gang tattoo removal at the Providence Holy Cross Medical Center, call (818) 893-4779.