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Working Off Their Tattoos, With Laser's Help

In return for the removal of emblems, patients must perform community service.

March 28, 2004|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

On one forearm Sal Perez sported the remnants of a Woody Woodpecker tattoo. On the other arm, there was a silhouette of an exquisitely drawn portrait of Jesus Christ.

"I got them when I was 15," said Perez, 46, as a doctor aimed a laser at the woodpecker, erasing the tattoo. "It was out of rebellion. I got one and my father didn't like it -- so I said I'll teach him, and got the other."

Not only were Perez's tattoos being removed Saturday morning, but the federal government was helping to pick up the tab.

Earlier in the day, Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-North Hollywood) presented a check for $148,422 to the tattoo removal program at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the San Fernando Valley.

The reasoning behind the money: Berman and hospital officials said that people without tattoos stand a better chance of landing a job. Perez, for example, works as a medical clerk and believes his tattoos are unprofessional.

Officials also said that helping gang members get rid of tattoos of gang insignia prevents them from being targeted by rivals.

"We've seen people get killed because of their tattoos," said Sister Colleen Settles, a hospital official.

The hospital offers tattoo removal each Saturday morning at one of its outpatient clinics. Patients aren't charged, but they must perform 48 hours of community service for the first three treatments and 16 hours for each session thereafter.

It typically takes seven treatments to erase a tattoo made with black ink and 10 to 12 treatments for color drawings. A laser removes the ink -- a far cry from the old days, when a device resembling a sanding machine removed both tattoos and skin.

About 10 million Americans are believed to have tattoos. Not surprisingly, many patients on Saturday admitted that they got their tattoos after less than careful deliberations.

Images erased at the clinic Saturday included Bugs Bunny, a teardrop next to a woman's eye, the names of former boyfriends and girlfriends and a Latin inscription on the neck of a San Fernando Valley teen who said he didn't speak Latin.

A former gang member named Shawn, who declined to give his last name, came to the clinic to dispatch a tattoo of a smoking gun on his arm.

"I'm a health professional now," he said. "This seemed like a good idea."

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