When Lannie Wrye ran away from her Huntington Beach home at 13 to live on the streets of Hollywood, she cemented her friendship with the teen-agers she met there by letting one of them use a needle and blue ink to scratch "Loue," the nickname they gave her, between her left thumb and index finger.
At 16, Wrye and three friends were having an all-night drinking party in a Buena Park motel room when one of them crudely etched a tattoo of an expletive on her chest. That night, they robbed a pizza deliveryman of $200 and took off in his car on a week of partying and drinking in Hollywood, San Francisco and Las Vegas.
By age 18, Wrye had served two years for armed robbery and grand theft auto and wanted to put the past behind her. But the tattoos were a painful reminder of who she had been.
Fired the First Day
"Having tattoos is like telling the whole world that you are rebellious, that you had a bad childhood," Wrye said. "I couldn't get a decent job because of my tattoos."
When Wrye did get a job, at the counter of a yogurt shop in Huntington Beach, the manager fired her the first day, when she arrived in a shirt that exposed her arms and hands.
Today, at 19, Wrye's life has taken a turn. She has her first steady job, has enough money to rent a room in a house, and is enrolled in a computer training program.
Wrye credits her change of fortune to a pilot program that has provided her with $14,000 in free plastic surgery to remove her tattoos. She was the first participant in the program, but its organizers said it could help hundreds of ex-offenders in Orange County.
Begun in August by Volunteers in Parole, the program provides counseling and support activities for people who have been released from the California Youth Authority. It is sponsored by the CYA, California State Bar and Orange County Bar Assn.
Repugnant to Employers
Pat Ruhlman, director of VIP in Orange County, said: "Tattoos are like 'squadron patches' that kids give themselves on the streets, in gang activities or in jail. When they get out of the Youth Authority, they find that tattoos make it hard, if not impossible, to get jobs. . . .
"All too late, young people with tattoos realize that they are marked for life. Their tattoos tie them with their past, a past that is repugnant to employers, neighbors and new people in their lives."
Wrye had spent her teens shuttling between Orange County Juvenile Hall and foster homes. But whenever she could, she would hang out with other punkers, sporting a Mohawk haircut, biker clothes and tattoos on her arms and hands. When she was 15, Wrye decided to break the "stereotype that all punkers were into violence" by scratching "Peace," along with the peace sign, just above her left wrist.
But after she served time and was paroled, Wrye no longer wanted the attention mohawk haircuts and tattoos got her. But she couldn't turn it off. "The way (people) looked at me, I could tell that they were lumping me in with a group that I didn't want to be with anymore," Wrye said. "I wasn't a rebellious kid anymore, but because of my tattoos, people treated me like I was."
In a series of plastic surgical procedures over the last four months, Wrye has had three of her four most unsightly tattoos removed by Dr. H. George Brennan, a Newport Beach plastic surgeon, and Stewart Fordham, a Los Angeles plastic surgeon.
The surgery involved tissue expanders, which Brennan said are balloonlike bags inserted just under the surface of the skin. They are then slowly inflated with a saline solution, stretching skin next to the tattooed area.
The tattooed area is later cut away and the extra skin that has been created with the balloons is stretched over. This kind of plastic surgery is beyond the reach of parolees because removing a dime-sized tattoo can cost up to $1,000, Brennan said.
With her tattoos gone, Wrye said, she had the confidence to begin her job search again a month ago. Within a week, she was hired as a clerk at the Osco drugstore on Brookhurst Street in Garden Grove.
Earl Robinson, the store manager who hired Wrye, said: "I didn't notice Lannie's (remaining) tattoos because she only has small ones on one of her hands. . . . She was the one who brought the subject up. She explained that she was having them removed by plastic surgery."
Robinson conceded that job applicants with tattoos present a "problem."
"Tattoos cause a reaction among customers," he said, "especially if someone has tattoos up and down their arms and they're knives, daggers and that kind of thing."
Doyle Harris, a counselor with the state Employment Development Department in Fullerton who specializes in finding jobs for ex-offenders, said:
"People with tattoos are faced with the problem of overcoming the past. They have changed because of the time they spent in prison. They come out wanting to get a job and wanting to get their life together. But they can't because, with their tattoos, they can never escape their past.