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A Nun’s Indelible Commitment Erases a Scourge of Tattoos

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It’s a Saturday morning at the Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills, and tattoo-covered girls, women, men and boys overflow from the waiting room into the hall.

Some have plastic wrap taped to their arms and necks. Others have their sleeves and pants rolled up, exposing scribbles and swirls of body art, ranging from sharp professional jobs to sloppy homemade etchings.

They are here to get their tattoos removed.

They will pay for the laser procedure with hours of community service--or hours of education, making a down payment of time before they can even start.

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At the center of this tough-looking crowd of gang members, former gang members, gang members’ girlfriends and others is a white-haired, twinkly eyed, 76-year-old nun with a sprightly step and an easy laugh.

She is Sister June Wilkerson, and this is her tattoo removal clinic.

She moves among her charges--taping, greeting and checking up on them.

She knows where they’ve been and where they want to go in life. She’s the gatekeeper--they all have to talk to her or her assistant before they can get into the program.

“How are you doing?” she asks a young woman in a sleeveless shirt who has names tattooed up and down her arms, right down to her fingers. “You look a lot better.”

“I’m back, Sister June,” the woman says, flashing a smile. “I’m better. I’ve been in jail for the last four months. I got my diploma.”

Born in St. Louis, trained as a Dominican nun in a Wisconsin convent, Wilkerson says running a tattoo removal clinic is among the last things she ever imagined she would be doing.

A member of a teaching order, she taught high school for 25 years, college for a few more. She trained nurses to promote health in her parishes in Hollywood and Mission Hills. The church has taken her to Mobile, Ala., Bloomington, Ind., Chicago and finally California.

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Providence Holy Cross Medical Center is one of just two trauma centers in the San Fernando Valley. Here she saw firsthand the victims of guns, knives and gang violence.

“I see guns as a medical problem,” she says.

Behind the guns were the tattoos. A lot of the people who came through the trauma center could not get jobs, she says, and studies show that violence increases with poverty and a lack of jobs. In many cases, tattoos were a barrier to employment.

“This is to reduce violence and to serve the community,” Wilkerson says. “Ex-gang members are just hanging around. They have tattoos, so they can’t get jobs, and they end up getting in trouble.”

A team of people set to work building the San Fernando Violence Prevention Coalition, which meets on the hospital grounds. The tattoo removal clinic was one result.

Armed with $25,000 in seed money from Providence, Wilkerson got a doctor to volunteer his services. She found an outpatient diagnostic center to screen the clients. She got in touch with a police sergeant who was working with gangs. She rented the high-tech tattoo-removing laser machine and she rounded up a cadre of volunteer nurses and nonmedical volunteers.

Finally she came up with a way for the poor and unemployed to pay--with community service and educational achievement.

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“She got it all together, so it went from a concept to a working clinic,” says Dr. Frank Lusher, the first doctor to volunteer at the clinic. “She really was the driving force behind this, and it took someone here all the time to do it. Without her, the program wouldn’t be.”

In February 1998 the clinic opened.

Today 15 doctors, 16 registered nurses, 11 student nurses and seven nonmedical workers volunteer at the clinic, which is open only on Saturday mornings. Many of the clients work to promote or run the clinic as part of their community service.

It takes eight to 11 treatments to remove a tattoo, depending on its size, colors and complexity and the depth the ink has been shot into the skin. A client must wait at least six weeks between treatments so the skin can heal.

Showing Her Concern With Her Presence

Eighty-six people have had tattoos completely removed, but the clinic has served more than 500 people--counting those currently in the system or awaiting treatment. Wilkerson keeps photos of her graduates on file.

Moving through the clinic, she is a light presence, not a self-promoter.

She has shed the habit she wore in her early years. She says she hasn’t had to wear it since the Vatican II council in the 1960s, and that’s a relief. It was a barrier, she says.

People would swear, “and then look at me and say, ‘Sorry Sister June,’ ” she recalls with a giggle.

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Dressed in her street clothes, she guides any conversation away from herself to the stories of her clients, their struggles, their victories and her pride in them.

“I felt comfortable around her,” says Randy Quinonez, a 28-year-old ex-gang member from East L.A. who gives presentations to young people, urging them not to get tattoos. He is in the midst of his own removal treatments.

“The first time I talked to her felt like the 10th time.”

On this Saturday, Wilkerson floats from treatment room to treatment room, giving encouragement.

In one room, nurses apply anesthetic cream or shoot painkiller into the area around a client’s tattoo. Those who choose cream have to wait an hour and a half for it to take effect.

Then clients go to another room to get zapped by the $200,000 Versapulse machine--top-of-the-line technology, equipped to remove any color.

Dr. Lusher and his patients don dark glasses to protect their eyes from the laser. Lusher places a plastic tube over the tattoo and a tiny flash of lightning crackles down and sears the skin. He runs the laser over bared arms, wrists, fingers, breasts, necks and faces, but not on parts that would be hidden by clothes worn on the job, because the clinic doesn’t have limitless resources.

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It hurts.

Women cry, swear, grit their teeth and twist their feet in pain. Men do too.

The skin reddens and shrivels. Sometimes it bleeds.

Then the clients go to the final room, where nurses--or Wilkerson--apply Vaseline to the burned skin and bandage it.

To some who come, the fact that Wilkerson is a nun makes a difference. To some it means nothing at all.

Stabbed Because of His Tattoo

Rey Vanegas, 18, is the youngest of the clients here this day. He holds a special place in Wilkerson’s heart because the fading gang tattoo on his neck almost cost him his life last May.

He was waiting at a bus stop in Van Nuys a few weeks after his first treatment when he was stabbed in the midsection.

“I didn’t even know the people,” he said. “They knew me by my tattoo.”

Vanegas recounts his story without emotion, like an old man who has seen too much.

Wilkerson jumps in.

“You didn’t want to die. You got a lot of life to live.”

She squeezes his arm, and he becomes a teenager again.

“Thanks Sister June,” he says.

Vanegas says he was brought up Catholic. But religion means nothing to him now.

“I don’t believe in God or anything. It’s not like a lot of great stuff has happened to me.”

What does he think about a nun’s running a tattoo clinic?

“I think it’s crazy,” he says. “But it’s nice.”

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