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Feature story: Ex-prisoners, others have tattoos removed for free

● Click on play button at right to see video.

By Dave Boyce | Almanac Staff Writer

The "ink" is a combination of water, toothpaste and colored plastic -- melted checkers, for example. The "needle" is a sharpened staple. In the hands of a self-taught artist, the sort you're likely to find in prison, these raw materials become the stuff of prison tattoos, and gang identity.

But while visible affiliation with a gang can contribute to a safe existence when you're inside, it can be a big problem when you're on the outside and working on a new self image. Tattoos invite unwelcome attention from gangs on the outside and uncertainty in the minds of potential employers, ex-prisoners say.

Residents of San Mateo County with unwanted tattoos used to be able to turn to the county for help in having them erased, but the service went dark about two years ago after the fizzling of the laser-driven tattoo-removal equipment.

In February 2014, the program restarted with a new machine. Run jointly by the police department in Redwood City, the county Sheriff's Office and the county probation department, a clinic now convenes on a Saturday morning every two months or so at the Bay Road home of the Police Athletic League in Redwood City.

On a recent Saturday, two groups of clients -- about eight women and a dozen men -- gathered in the athletic league's recreation room. The women were there on their own; the men were affiliated with the Jericho Project in Brisbane, an alternative-sentencing program for recovering addicts and criminal offenders who make commitments to turn their lives around.

In Almanac's interviews, most of the clients identified themselves by their first names, and a few chose anonymity. All the men were serving sentences at the Jericho Project in lieu of serving in prison for felony offenses.

Also present for the clinic were Zuzanna Likar, a nurse practitioner and laser operator; Manuel Velarde of the juvenile-services section of the Redwood City Police Department, and two San Mateo County probation officers: John Domeniconi in the rec room bantering with the men, and Carrie Cross helping Ms. Likar in the treatment room.

The $100,000 laser, funded through donations, works by detecting a tattoo's colors and fracturing the ink into tiny particles that are all but invisible. This will happen naturally; the laser accelerates the process. Black and blue are the easiest colors to treat; white is untreatable, Ms. Likar says.

A skilled operator can erase a tattoo in four or five sessions, Ms. Likar says. She and her clients "are going to be really close friends by the time it's done," she says.

Clients emerged from the treatment bandaged, some with their arms swathed in white. The process is "very painful," Ms. Cross says. Clients are given rubber balls to squeeze, and for very large tattoos, it may be necessary to numb the area. The two-month intervals between sessions are necessary to allow the skin to recover after being blasted by the laser.

Ex-convicts usually don't complain about the pain, Ms. Cross says. "They say, 'For what I did, I deserve it.' Everybody is very grateful. The whole time, they're saying 'Thank you, thank you.'"

When San Mateo County was without its machine, on occasion Ms. Likar would treat clients at her Palo Alto facility at no cost, says Mr. Velarde. "She has a heart of gold," he adds.

Prison tattooing

Prison and jail officials don't allow tattooing behind bars, but it happens. Typically, Jericho Project members say, a session consists of the client, the artist and a lookout. "Everything's done in secret there," says Ernie.

"We try to look out for each other (and) make sure it's clean," adds Albert. "There's guys in the gang that don't have any tattoos, but you want to stand out. ... You want to advertise what you're representing, who you're running with."

"You think like a kid," says Michael. "It's a false self esteem, a fake identity. ... A guy in a gang doesn't really have a lot of courage. It's a group thing."

"I'm done with tattoos," says Pedro, bandages covering both of his forearms. The Jericho Project, he says, "helped me understand the value of my life."

Ernie says he got tattooed to fit in with everybody else while in prison. "And that's what it does until you are released, and then you're pretty much an outcast," he says. "It was a big mistake. Fortunately, we're here now."

"I was brought up by good parents and everything," says Albert, "but I just made some wrong decisions: running and cheating and stealing." Jericho has opened up possibilities now that he has a job in construction. "There's no negativity," he says. "It's all positive. I want to live an honest life. I don't want to spend the rest of my life in prison. I'm learning hands-on."

Names and roses

Among the young women, tattoos served another purpose.

A San Carlos woman, now 24, says she got herself tattooed with the name of her boyfriend, but that was seven years ago. While the name is in a spot normally hidden by clothes, it is enough that it is there. "My new boyfriend hates it," she says.

She's been waiting since 2011 for the clinic to restart. Would she ever get another tattoo? "No, never," she says.

Corina, 33, of East Palo Alto, is marked with the names of her three children, roses and the phrase "Daddy's girl." Why? "I'm an ex-addict," she says. "I was high all the time."

She's been clean for three years and is working for Voices of Recovery San Mateo County, a nonprofit with a mission of helping people with addictions and their friends and families. "I'm just trying to restore my life," she says.

Rosa, 21, of Redwood City has had a rose on her shoulder since she was 13. She has a butterfly tattooed on her pelvis. At 15, she had another rose placed on her lower back with "a guy's name" beneath it. "I thought I was in love, but what did I know," she says.

They were all mistakes, she says. "I've been studying the Bible and what not. I should basically never get another tattoo and just leave my body the way it is."

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