Erasing marks from the past

Ben Godar

When young people try to leave the gang lifestyle behind, their past

often stays with them in the form of tattoos. But for the past five

years, a tattoo- removal program offered by Providence Health Systems


-- a network of health care providers that includes Providence St.

Joseph Medical Center -- has helped those people change their lives.

The program, which celebrated its fifth anniversary earlier this

month, allows participants to get their unwanted body art removed in


exchange for community service or returning to school.

During that time, program officials said 285 clients have

graduated from the program, with nearly 40% returning to school for

GED or skill training and nearly 50% taking a new job or getting a


Victor Tovar, a 23-year-old Burbank resident, had tattoos removed

from his neck and arm in 2000. After spending several years involved

in gangs, Tovar said he wanted to get a better job and look more



“After I got released from boot camp, I went to my probation

officer for some help and the first thing he said to me was we needed

to take [the tattoos] off,” he said.

Sister June Wilkerson, a Catholic Dominican sister, started the

program after becoming concerned about increasing violence in the San

Fernando Valley. Removing the tattoos, she said, helps people

distance themselves from their gang involvement.


“You can leave the gang and leave the life of crime, but you can’t

get into the mainstream with something like ’18' on your neck,” she


For most people looking to turn their lives around, it is

difficult to come up with the $3,000 to $10,000 fee for the laser

procedure, Wilkerson said.

“If they’re just getting out of prison, there’s no way they have

that money,” she said.

In exchange for the free tattoo removal, clients must complete 16

hours of community service or attend eight hours of classes for each

removal session. The number of sessions can vary depending on the

size of the tattoos, Wilkerson said.

While Burbank resident Susan Spire was never in a gang, she said

the tattoos on her arms and chest portrayed a “biker chick” image

that the 43-year-old woman wanted to leave behind.

“Back in those days, I was automatically summed-up,” she said.

“Job interviews -- everything -- was done in long sleeves.”

Spire paid for her removal by attending Mission College in Sylmar,

and is just a few credits short of being accredited as an addiction


Tovar attended community college and counseled young people about

his gang experiences to pay for his procedure. He has completed the

fire academy and hopes to one day become a firefighter.