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Tattoo Removal Program Sees Increase In Clients

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With gang activity on the rise, Cottage Hospital's tattoo removal program is busier than ever.

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When a prominent local plastic surgeon died in a plane crash three years ago, some feared that the tattoo removal program he founded would perish, too.

But despite a brief shock-induced lull after the death of Dr. John Padilla, that didn’t happen, thanks to other volunteers who stepped up.

Now, with the recent uptick in gang violence across the Santa Barbara County, the program is busier than ever.

During this fiscal year, the number of people served by the Santa Barbara Liberty Program for Tattoo Removal has nearly doubled, from 125 the year before to 220.

Liberty, which operates out of Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital but is funded mostly by the St. Francis Foundation, survives on the good will of physicians who donate their time every other week to treat the patients. The aim is to remove tattoos that are considered “anti-social” or gang-related.

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Although anybody can apply for the treatment – which can be slightly painful and take several sessions – not everyone will be accepted.

“If somebody has a little heart or butterfly on their arm, that’s debatable,” said Jan Ingram, who heads up the overarching Parish Nurse program under which the tattoo-removal center operates.

Less so, she said, would be the name of a former lover, a gang sign or anything on the hands or face.

“Anything that is getting in the way of a person trying to better their life,” she said.

On a recent Sunday, about 40 patients – most of them Latino – waited in the lobby for their turn to receive the laser treatment.

Among them was a 32-year-old man from Santa Maria named Genaro Gallegos.

For Gallegos, tattoos and his past life as a criminal went hand-in-hand.

Gallegos has spent some time in the big house, but over the years, he said, his life of crime gave way to one of responsibility. Now he is raising a family and has started a business. But the tattoos covering his neck, torso, arms and hands didn’t go away, and serve as a relentless reminder of the life he is trying to leave behind.

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Sometimes, the self-employed contractor for additions and remodels has trouble getting clients to trust him at first glance.

“A lot of people get pretty scared,” he said. “They think I might walk away with the jewelry.”

Gallegos was 13 when he got his first tattoo. It was a gang symbol, on his shoulder. In the next decade and a half he would add about a dozen more, covering his body in swirling references to gangs, women and his nickname, “Pelon,” which, despite his healthy head of hair, means “bald” in Spanish.

 

Gallegos said he went to jail for “bad behavior” such as armed robbery, which he said helped sustain his addiction to crack cocaine.

“I would do whatever it takes to get some money for that high,” he said.

Not all of the clients are aspiring graduates of the gang life. One middle-aged woman, who declined to give her name, said she had recently seen what tattoos look like on the wrinkled skin of a woman in her 70s.

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“I just had to get mine removed,” she said, while a doctor and a laser technician zapped away at the rose on her leg.

But the gang quotient at the clinic on Bath and Junipero was dominant. One 16-year-old boy who came into the laser room with his father removed his shirt to expose the word “Evilside” tattooed across his chest. This, he said, is another term for “Eastside.”

Under normal circumstances, removing a tattoo can cost a person thousands of dollars. Clients at the Liberty program pay nothing, but that doesn’t mean they get it for free. Rather, they must complete 10 hours of community service for every treatment they receive. (The patients must put in their hours before receiving treatment.) So if a particularly elaborate tattoo takes, say, 20 sessions to remove, the patient must volunteer 200 hours.

Meanwhile, the St. Francis Foundation donates about $80,000 a year to the cause, and the city of Santa Barbara chips in another $10,000. Ingram said she is beyond grateful.

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“There are so many quiet greats in this town,” she said.

As for the laser treatment — it is intense. Most people opt to numb the area with shots beforehand. For those who forgo the painkiller, the laser feels like a rubber band snapping on the surface of the skin hundreds of times a second, said laser technician David Nageotte.

In the laser room, protective goggles are mandatory, because the laser can cause permanent damage to unprotected eyeballs. When the laser is projected onto the tattoo, it makes a slight crackling sound. Not long after, the faint scent of burning flesh wafts through the air.

“The ink is like little chunks of rocks,” said Dr. Douglas Duncan, a family physician who regularly volunteers his Sunday afternoons to work the laser machine. “The laser is like a hammer.”

After breaking up the ink with the laser, the body’s white blood cells take the chunks and carry them into the system, where they dissolve.

Essentially, the laser procedure accelerates the process that happens naturally over a much longer period of time.

For most patients, the physical discomfort is a small price to pay.

Lyda Martin, the nurse in charge of the clinic who works under Ingram, told a story of an ex-convict who recently got out of a gang in Los Angeles and re-located to Lompoc. Half of his face, and one of his fists, were painted completely black.

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The man refused to leave his house in Lompoc, for fear that gang members there would take one look at his face and ask him what gang he belonged to: In the gang world, dropping out of the lifestyle is often grounds for getting hurt.

Now, after months of treatment, the man’s tattoos are nearly all gone, and he recently landed a job, Martin said. The change in his demeanor is unmistakable, she added.

“The first day he came in he had his head down,” she said. “Now he smiles, and he speaks to you.”

For more information on the Liberty Program, call (805) 563-9294.

 

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