Gang Tattoo Removal Effort Needs Help Buying New Laser
Law enforcement agencies on the Peninsula are raising money for a new tattoo removal laser in hopes of helping former gang members start a new life. For 15 years San Mateo County has offered to zap the tattoos off in return for community service. Back in April, the old machine broke down. Now a coalition of agencies hopes to raise $125,000 for a new laser that can treat tattoos of any color.
Probation Officer John Domeniconi has worked with the program since its inception 15 years ago. He says the removal, performed by volunteer doctors and nurses, is a lengthy but life-changing process.
"Some people take anywhere between four to maybe ten, twelve sessions to remove the tattoo," says Domeniconi. "So you actually get to know them on a personal level. And then when it comes to, maybe we're going to do a community project or go talk to other people, a lot of them are willing to come back and do that for us."
The program is designed for young people who wanted to leave gangs and move on with their lives, free of the stigma of their gang tattoos. Applicants complete a form with questions about their prior activities and their future plans. Some will complete twenty to forty hours of community service as payment to get their tattoos removed.
"The tattoo actually looks like it was never there (after the treatments)," Domeniconi says.
Back in April a volunteer nurse told the program's managers the laser was broken. Fixing it would cost thousands of dollars, and there was no guarantee it would work as well as it had before. Now the plan is to buy a new machine for the county's use, with a better laser that can remove more colors of tattoo ink. The color, density and depth of a tattoo affects how resilient it is to the laser.
San Mateo County hopes to restart the treatments as soon as possible. There was already a waiting list when the machine broke, and the list is getting longer now. For many former gang members, these symbols of a disavowed criminal past prevent them from making a clean start at a better life.
"(If) you want to change your life, it's not just from the inside," Domeniconi says. "A lot of the time, it has to be from the outside too. And if people don't see those tattoos, they're more apt to approach you. They're more apt to give you that job."