Reporter Linda Paul recently profiled Adrian Torres who volunteers to remove tattoos for former gang members. In her reporting she found Chicago once ran a program doing just that — it lasted nearly ten years.
A few weeks ago, I visited a medical center on the West Side of Chicago, across from Garfield Park. This facility is just one in a web of neighborhood clinics known as the Access Community Health Network. I’ve come here to meet Dr. Tariq Butt, the vice president of Health Affairs. He said patients come here for both preventive care and the treatment of chronic conditions.
It is a place with a holistic approach. If a patient has trouble paying electric or water bills, or challenges in finding housing, this clinic works to connect the patient to agencies that can address those needs.
I’ve come to hear about the gang tattoo removal service that started 20 years ago and lasted nearly ten years. At that time, this facility was called The Madison Family Health Center, part of Mount Sinai Hospital’s network of family health centers. Today it has a different name, but it’s basically the same clinic.
At first, the tattoo removal program here was modest. Just once per week on Saturdays. But they quickly had to ramp up to seven days per week because the program was in demand.
“You were looking at 40 to 50 tattoos removed every day, minimum,” Butt said.
Let’s do the math. At the low end, 40 sessions per day, six days per week, almost year round: About 12,500 sessions per year to remove gang-related tattoos.
The staff was worried at first that former gang members might intimidate other patients. So tattoo removal clients were ushered to a separate part of the building. But that turned out to be unnecessary, Butt said. Everyone got along, and he said there wasn’t a single outburst of violence.
The idea for this program came from Dr. John P. May, who in 1996 had just finished his residency and was a young doctor working at Cook County Jail. That’s where he first noticed ham-fisted attempts by inmates trying to remove their tattoos.
They would “burn it off with cigarettes or hot spoons. Or put cooking oil on it, trying to scrub it, sandpaper it, whatever it might be, to reduce,” May said. “I’ve seen a number of bad infections, in fact, from attempts to remove gang tattoos.”
The longer May worked at the jail, the more he started viewing injuries from violence as a public health issue. He still believes that today as a chief medical officer at a company that provides healthcare to jails and prisons throughout the country.
“You know we can talk to people about cholesterol and high blood pressure and smoking cessation,” he said. “But it’s guns and firearm injuries which are going to kill them.”
May and some of his colleagues wanted to find interventions that could reduce the risk of violence for their patients. So they did a study at Cook County Jail in which they surveyed more than 600 men entering the jail.
“We found that more than half of them had been hospitalized at least one time for an injury related to violence — a stab wound, a gunshot wound, an assault. Fifty percent.” May said. “And we found that one in four had been shot before.”
The survey identified five main risk factors for those who had been shot. The doctors couldn’t control most of those risk variables, but they found “that people were more than twice as likely to have been shot if you had a gang-related tattoo, than not,” May said.
And that led to May’s big idea. How about a public place where people could come for low-cost removal of gang-related tattoos?
Once the survey hit the media, the phones started ringing. One call was from Aurelia Pucinski, at that time the Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court. She asked how she could help. A coalition of violence prevention groups was formed with various local charities and foundations, May said. Eventually, they raised enough money to purchase a machine that did tattoo removal with a new approach — laser technology.
The machine cost $60,000. But with the help of many benefactors, they reached their goal.
But there was still the matter of where to house the program. Butt and the clinic he headed stepped forward.
Given the scope of this service, given the impact, the obvious question is, what happened? Why did the program disappear?
The tattoo removal program went strong for at least eight years, Butt said.
But the machine was getting old and repairs were costly. Eventually the clinic needed a new machine, but it was expensive, the staff time was expensive and they were making very little money.
And so the program folded. An event that Butt said saddens him to this day.
But he says it could be resurrected. It’s just a matter of harnessing the right forces and getting the right leaders on board.
Linda Paul is a freelance reporter.