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Removing Gang Tattoos ‘A Life And Death Thing’

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Invisible gang boundaries criss-cross Chicago, creating potentially deadly no-go zones for those with specific gang tattoos.

“If you’re on the North Side, for example at Western and North Avenue or something, and you have a pitchfork going up? You might be okay,” Adrian Torres said.

That same tattoo in a different part of town could be deadly.

“You have a pitchfork going up on 26th and Kedzie? You probably will not be okay for more than five to ten minutes,” Torres said. “It’s not even, like, questionable. It’s a life and death thing automatically.”

Torres is a tattoo artist by trade. But twice a month he packs up a tattoo removal machine he purchased online, lugs it to a nearby community center, and instead of creating art, he removes it. Torres said he considers this 100 percent volunteer work.

For $20 per session -- money that goes towards supplies like gauze and aloe vera -- Torres said he removes the kind of body art that can hamper lives.

Torres said there is a group of people who “have never left the neighborhood … Or haven’t left the neighborhood in five, six years because they got a crazy looking tattoo on their face.”

At least some of those people have left gang life.

And they would like to leave their gang tattoos behind. But tattoo removal is expensive, and more than many former gang members can afford.

The cost of safety

Prices vary, but it can cost about $250 per session for the laser removal of a tattoo the size of a credit card. A tattoo twice that size could cost $350 per session. Someone who wants to remove tattoos that extend the entire length of the arm might pay $1,200 per session, said Robert Weiss, the former-president of the American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery. Multiple sessions are needed for each removal.

Laser removal is the treatment of choice for removing tattoos, said Weiss, a dermatologist in Baltimore who has taught dermatology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Here is how it works: bursts of high intensity light break the ink down into particles small enough to be carried away by the body’s immune system. Different wavelengths of light are used to target particular ink colors.

A single laser machine can cost up to $250,000, Weiss said.

“There’s maintenance costs, which are pretty high per year,” Weiss said. “You use up the flash lamp that is creating the laser pulse, and when it gets replaced, it’s tens of thousands of dollars.”

The high cost of tattoo removal is what gets former gang-members flocking to Torres.

Eddie Bocanegra has seen this first-hand.

Today, Bocanegra is the Executive Director for the Youth Safety and Violence Prevention program at the YMCA of Metro Chicago. But he used to work as a “violence interrupter” with CeaseFire, a program profiled in the documentary The Interrupters.

That is when he met Torres.

At that time, Bocanegra and his colleagues were deployed into communities experiencing increases in violence. Their mission was to defuse potentially deadly conflict. They often encountered people with gang tattoos on their bodies -- including arms, necks and faces.

“There were some people who wanted change, they just didn’t know where to start from,” Bocanegra said.

Bocanegra learned that Torres both applied and removed tattoos.

Bocanegra said he met with Torres and told him: “Listen. You’re from the neighborhood Little Village. I’m from Little Village. You know the same people that I know. I got some kids that made some really dumb choices. That’s long ago. They have these tattoos that’s really compromising their safety. Would you be willing to help me change them? I will pay you out of my own pocket a reduced price to be able to do that.”

That is how it went for the first two CeaseFire clients Bocanegra brought to Torres.

“And after about the third client, this now friend of mine says, ‘You know what Eddie? You don’t have to pay me. I’m gonna do it, because I see what you’re doing,’” Bocanegra said. “‘You bring them to me. Let’s set a time when business is slow. I’ll take care of it.’”

Bocanegra and others believe tattoo removal could be part of a practical solution for people who want to turn away from gang life. It could open up mobility, and employment, he said.

“You allow a person to go look for employment outside the community,” he said. “You allow the opportunity of a person going back to school without being concerned for their safety.”

Reasons for removal

There is a certain sameness to the stories of people who come to Torres.

Edward Roman said he wanted to remove a tattoo that carried the name of his former gang, plus a teardrop under one of his eyes. Roman was referred by a member of his church who works with at-risk youth and former gang members.

Edward Roman shows his tattoo removal.

Linda Paul/WBEZ

Roman said he is a born-again Christian who divorced himself entirely from gang life. Like a lot of youths, he dreamed of becoming an actor or athlete.

But Roman said gangs were everywhere in the neighborhood he grew up -- and there was no escape.

Though at first he tried.

He said gang members would follow him home from school and harass him to join their ranks. He said eventually he relented.

Once Roman was in the gang, however, other members made him feel loved, respected and wanted, he said. For nearly 15 years -- almost half his life -- Roman said he was deep into the gang lifestyle, all the while cycling in and out of prison.

Roman said he got his first gang tattoo at just 16 while incarcerated at Illinois’ youth prison in Joliet.

Getting a tattoo in prison is not unusual.

Makeshift tattoo guns can be made with small motors from CD or cassette players, sources said. Prison ink is made with soot, water, toothpaste, shampoo, baby oil -- or even melted chess pieces.

Roman said he got his teardrop tattoo for a close friend who died.

“So at that time it was significant to have those tattoos because they represented what I belonged to,” he said.

Today, Roman said he wants to be himself.

“This isn’t representing who I am anymore,” he said.

Roman said he currently works the night shift, cleaning tanks for a large food production company.

He said he wants to find work in an office setting, but knows managers could be wary of his tattoo. When he went to help with the ministry at his church, some people objected, he said.

“(They said) we don’t want this guy up here because he has a tattoo on his face,” Roman said.

He said another reason to get the tattoo removed is for his son.

“I don’t want him to catch any heat or attention because of, you know, something I did in the past,” Roman said.

Removals could be outside the rules 

Torres’ tattoo removal efforts aren’t the only ones in the Chicago area, but his clients seemed appreciative of his work and its price.

But there could be at least one major issue with the service Torres offers: he is not a physician.

In Illinois -- and many other states -- laser tattoo removal procedures have to be performed by a doctor or someone directly under the supervision of a doctor.

Weiss believes that is the way it should be.

“It’s really all about what happens when something is going wrong,” he said.

However, Torres believes the device he bought off the internet for about $1,500 is not actually a laser, so he thinks what he is doing is legal.

The state informed WBEZ the removal of tattoos with any device is considered the practice of medicine in Illinois and requires doctor involvement.

“If they tell us to stop, we’ll stop,” Torres said. “But I’m glad we were able to help somebody out. They wouldn’t have been able to get help anywhere else.”

Torres also said Chicago is a dangerous city and somebody has to risk something to help people whose lives are in danger.

“(If) me removing less than dime-sized tattoos from their face helps them live longer, I’d do that all day. I’d do it all day if it was illegal or not,” he said.

At the same time, Torres would prefer to pass the baton. He said he dreams of a large-scale, affordable center staffed by medical professionals.

Chicago once had such a program. It started on the West Side in 1996. Doctors and nurses did 40 to 50 gang tattoo removals per day. It was open for almost a decade.

Elsewhere in the country, large-scale programs to remove gang-related tattoos are a reality.

The Los Angeles-based non-profit Homeboy Industries claims to do more free tattoo removal than any other organization in the country, with priority given to gang-related tattoos.

Homeboy Industries said its 36 volunteer doctors and physician assistants conducted about 45,000 tattoo removal sessions in 2015.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department administers a separate program where inmates can earn the right to have their tattoos removed while still incarcerated. It’s an attempt to reduce recidivism and buttress ex-cons’ chances of finding work once they are released.

Could Chicago benefit from a large-scale, low cost program to remove gang tattoos? 

Bocanegra said many who want to opt out of gang life can’t afford the tattoo removal procedure without help.

Bocanegra said a program to address the problem is possible, and would likely require companies willing to donate money for the machines, a medical institution willing to provide professionals to do the work and strategic partnerships and conversations among city and county government.

Meanwhile, Torres is still running a one man tattoo removal service.

But, he says, “I can only do so much.” 

He wants a place to send people when he hears, “Dude, I don’t even have a job. How am I gonna get a job to get money to get these tattoos removed if I don’t have a job because I got these tattoos because I can’t get ‘em removed because I don’t have the money?”

With more than 3,000 people shot in Chicago this year, and more than 500 dead -- removing gang related tattoos could actually save some lives, Torres said.

“Somebody can get a tattoo of a teardrop in less than a minute,” Torres said. “And it can literally kill them the next day. This isn’t a joke. It’s a war zone out here.”

Linda Paul is a freelance reporter. Ken Davis contributed, including producing the audio feature.

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