Former gangsters and sex workers are having their tattoos removed as part of an innovative program to help turn their lives around.
Erasing the ink may help to reduce their exposure to violence and trauma, say doctors.
By removing tattoos in exchange for community service and science education, the project in Los Angeles is helping to keep people safe, build a new identity, and get a job.
One person who took part in the program is now a Secret Service agent.
Tattoos, especially those related to gangs and sex work, can make individuals targets for violence, according to research.
Inkings may also make it more difficult for people to make changes in their lives, including finding a job or joining the military.
The study showed that people with gang-related tattoos often have a harder time getting jobs or joining the military, which does not allow recruits to have tattoos on certain exposed areas of their bodies- such as the face, neck, or hands.
As part of the study, 26 men and women reported full removal of 35 tattoos after 208 total sessions. Clients performed more than 17,265 hours of community service.
Eight out of nine of the program’s clients (88 percent) desired tattoo removal to transition to a healthier life, and 81 percent reported success in achieving their goals after tattoo removal.
Study leader Dr. Damon Clark, a general surgeon and Assistant Professor of clinical surgery at Keck School of Medicine, said: “Even compared with other American cities, tattoos are a particularly significant part of the Los Angeles culture.
“Violence can come from rival gang members or even from police, who may act in a more heightened, urgent, and aggressive way when they see someone with a gang tattoo.
“Tattoo removal helps protect individuals and is part of the healing process, helping them get a new identity and job opportunities.”
He said removing the tattoos can help people break away from a former life and establish a new identity, helping to prevent relapse, and it may also prevent suicide.
Dr. Clark continued: “A lot of clients who come to get tattoos removed were sex workers.
“They get the tattoo removed to move on with their life emotionally and physically.”
Removing a tattoo typically costs between US $200 (£165) and US $500 (£412) per session.
However, more than half of the clients get their tattoos from amateurs, often while incarcerated. In prison, for example, tattoo artists use improvised ink, such as paint scrapes, pen ink or pencil lead, and improvised tattoo machines.
Dr. Clark said those tattoos are often more difficult to remove, and may require 15 to 20 sessions.
The program’s “fee” is for clients to do five hours of community service for each session, which can consist of school attendance, volunteering at a church or non-profit, or attending an Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meeting.
In addition to Dr. Clark, general surgery residents, emergency department residents, and medical students do the removal procedures.
The project, which has just one room and one laser, now has about 300 clients undergoing tattoo removal.
Besides tattoo removal and community service, the program exposes the clients to education, particularly in science, such as biology and healthcare-related subjects.
Sometimes, mentorship and substance use disorder counseling are also provided when appropriate.
One of the earliest clients of the program, which started in 2016, was a high school dropout when he began getting his gang-related tattoos removed,
Dr. Clark said: “After going through the program, the client finished high school, attended a four-year college, and is now a Secret Service agent in Washington, DC.
He added: “Violence is a medical problem and is a big cost on our country, our hospitals, and our productivity.
“If we treat it as a disease instead of a social problem, we’d be better off.”
The findings are due to be presented at the American College of Surgeons (ACS) annual Clinical Congress in Boston, Mass.
Produced in association with SWNS Talker
“What’s the latest with Florida Man?”
Get news, handpicked just for you, in your box.