Erasing The Past, One Tattoo At A Time

After just one laser session from Chris Bendinelli of the gang tattoo on Juan Nila’s throat is visibly lighter.

Juan Nila has made a lot of decisions he regrets, but at least one can be erased: the prominent Aztec tattoo across the front of his neck that signaled his membership in a street gang.

More than 75 people made appointments for the tattoo removal session held in the parking lot of Stockton’s Mary Magdalene Community Services Center.

“I’m trying to change my life around,” he said recently as he clutched paperwork that would admit him into a mobile tattoo removal van. “This is part of my betterment, to make me look more presentable.”
The event for 1170(h) offenders was sponsored by the Mary Magdalene Community Services Center, a counseling and job readiness nonprofit in San Joaquin County funded, in part, with Public Safety Realignment money distributed by the county’s Community Corrections Partnership. It was the agency’s first tattoo removal event and more than 75 people showed up, some referred by their probation officers, others from caseworkers at the center. “It’s part of the conversation we have with our clients,” said Executive Director Geneva Haynes. “How serious are these guys about getting out of gangs? How can they get employment with gang tattoos on their faces? Whether they want to participate in something like this helps us gauge their readiness for a number of things.”

Nila ices his throat after the painful tattoo removal session. He said the laser felt like a hot rubber band snapping his neck.

The agency brought in, a Sacramento-based mobile facility operated by registered nurse Chris Bendinelli, who efficiently and compassionately keeps the long line moving. In the front of the vehicle clients watch a video so they know what to expect from the laser treatment (it hurts far worse than getting the tattoo), and how to care for the area afterward (lots of ice). It can take four sessions to remove a homemade prison tattoo with “ink” derived from things such as melted chess pieces or handballs, and eight sessions to remove one done with professional inks.

Arturo Napoles is having tear drops removed from near his left eye because his daughter doesn’t like them.

In the back of the van Bendinelli goes to work. “We focus on tattoos on the hands, face and neck – areas that can’t be covered with clothing,” he said as a client braced himself in a barber-like chair while the nurse deftly moved a laser’s painful red beam across sensitive skin. Cesar Hurtado calls the folks at the Mary Magdalene center “lifesavers” because they have helped him adjust to freedom after serving time from 1999 until 2010. The tattoo removal comes after months of counseling that has set him on the right path. “This is going to make me feel more normal,” he says. “I don’t want to say I regret getting them, but I can’t look for a job.”Arturo Napoles, who has been to prison three times, was having a cross removed from his right temple, and two tear drops from beneath his left eye, the latter with prison-related meanings including the number of sentences served or people killed. Napoles didn’t want to talk about the meaning behind his. “My daughter doesn’t like them, and my probation officer brought it (the removal event) up to me,” said Napoles, who managed to get a good job at a hardware store in spite of them. But now that he has been promoted, “It’s time for them to go.”

Cesar Hurtado shows the tattoo on his arm that he is having removed.

Francisco was having a “1” and “3” removed from each temple. Like the other men, he never flinched as Bendinelli quickly worked the painful laser light across the images and they faded toward oblivion. “This is going to make me more presentable,” he said. “My parole agent sent me here. It’s time.”

Francisco wears protective goggles as he waits for a the gang symbol“1” and “3” to be removed from each temple.

The Mary Magdalene Center paid $1,100 for the four-hour session, then treated clients to sandwiches. A handful of the participants volunteered for HIV testing, signed up for Covered California and inquired about other social services such as substance abuse counseling that might be available to help them transition to life outside of jail or prison. Juan Nila, released eight months earlier, hopes his new look and improved outlook will have a bigger payoff than just a new job. He knows his responsibility is greater than that. “It’s for my son, really. I don’t want him to see this and think the gang life is OK. I don’t want him to go down the same road,” Nila said.