PARAMOUNT — The tattoos on his left hand--the symbols of gang affiliation--had taken only a few moments to apply five years ago. But the stigma attached to the marks that Edmundo Orozco made with a needle and black ink is indelible.
The tattoos on his back, legs, arms and chest can be hidden by clothing, but the ones on his hand could not be easily concealed.
Because he feared employers would think him a troublemaker, "I would hide the hand under the table or place my other hand over it while job hunting," Orozco said.
"I never let them see the tattoos," said Orozco, 19, who now works as a laborer for a Gardena company that makes hydraulic oil-drilling pumps.
"Some people on my job still look at me, sort of like, 'Man, you are weird,' "said Orozco. Tattoos are not acceptable to them and they associate them with criminals or "bad people," he said. But with an 8-month-old son and a loving fiancee, life is different than it was for a budding gang member. Orozco was convinced he had to get rid of the old symbols.
He recently had the tattoos surgically removed at no charge through the Los Angeles County Tattoo Removal Project. The volunteer project is operated by Sherman Oaks plastic surgeon Dr. Karl Stein and his wife, Sandra, a lawyer.
Since the program began in 1981, the Steins estimate that they have removed tattoos from more than 400 people. Most of the patients have been former gang members from the San Fernando Valley, where the Steins operate.
The program began when Superior Court Judge Irwin Nebron, then a juvenile court judge in the San Fernando Valley, asked the Los Angeles County Medical Assn. to find plastic surgeons willing to remove tattoos from youths as a public service, said Sandra Stein.
The judge had noticed that gang members who appeared in his court were doing almost anything to get rid of the tattoos so they could start new lives, Karl Stein said.
"They were doing horrible things, trying to burn them off, using hot pokers, cigarettes, flaming grease, razor blades and acid," Stein said.
Orozco, who is the first person from the Paramount area to take advantage of the free service, found out about the project from Tony Ostos, who teaches an anti-gang course in the Paramount Unified School District. The course, Alternatives to Gang Membership, is sponsored by the city and school district.
Ostos said he showed Orozco a videotape made by a San Fernando Valley cable company and donated to the Steins. The tape, which graphically depicts the removal of tattoos, is offered free by the Steins to organizations anywhere in the country. The tape also features young people talking about the problems tattoos have caused them, especially when they seek work or try to disassociate themselves from past gang activities.
Even for those who are employed, the tattoos continue to cause embarrassment, Ostos said.
"I have contacted several others, including two female office workers who are embarrassed by their tattoos, but Eddie is the first to complete the process," Ostos said.
Stein said tattoo removal "is a trade-off. You keep the tattoos (which are not socially acceptable) or you keep the scars."
The surgery, which generally takes an hour, would cost about $500.
Methods of Removal
Depending on the size and location of the tattoo and type of ink used to make it, Stein said, he can cut, sand or use a laser to remove it. Healing takes two to six weeks.
During the removal of Orozco's two tattoos, his hand was anesthetized, and Stein used a scalpel to slice around the tattoos. The tissue was lifted with tweezers.
"I am not interested in removing a tattoo that can be hidden. I'm interested in the visible ones," Stein said.
Looking back, Orozco said he wishes he had listened to an older brother who had warned him against tattooing himself.
"I wouldn't listen. I just had to do it. Now I regret it," said Orozco.
He said he plans to retake part of a state educational test to qualify for a high school diploma.
"All I need to do is pass the math test," said Orozco, who has attended adult classes to prepare for it. "I'm getting it together. I don't have time to hang out with the guys at the park. With the job, the baby, my girlfriend, I'm too busy."