By Armando Varela
LOS ANGELES – A program in Long Beach, California, is helping people who feel that having tattoos hurts their image and want to erase them to begin a new life without them.
Damaris Olaechea ran away from home at 17 and tattooed her body and face with various images to demonstrate her rebellion against society.
But now, after several sessions to erase the tattoos, there are still faint signs of them that can be made out on her chest, hands, arms and face and, because of them, says the now-22-year-old Olaechea, she feels uncomfortable with the looks she gets from people on the street.
“I decided to remove my tattos because I know that it’s going to be very difficult to find work (with them) and because I don’t want reminders of the lifestyle I had before,” she tells Efe before submitting to a new tattoo-erasing session.
The Cuban-American is one of the beneficiaries of the Erase the Past program, in which a dermatologist whose parents died in the Holocaust seeks to help people who feel the stigma of their tattoos with the aim of giving them a new chance to get ahead in life.
“It doesn’t matter where you go, people are going to stigmatize you and be afraid of you because that’s the way things are in society. Even if you’re out of the gangs, working and trying to improve your life and that of your family,” said Dr. Bryna Kane.
One of the attractive things about Erase the Past, co-founded by Kane and Dr. Edward Glassberg with the collaboration of Long Beach Memorial Hospital and the local police department, is that it is completely free.
The basic conditions that people who want to participate must meet are that they have to have retired from gang life and in exchange for each tattoo erased they must do five hours of community service.
If they had to pay for it, very few could have the erasure procedure done because it can cost thousands of dollars at some $150 per session.
The procedure, which is painful for the patient, takes place in several phases, with a sophisticated laser device that makes the pigment beneath the skin disappear, leaving only a light scar.
“What the laser does is go through the skin, in which the ink particles have been absorbed and it breaks them into fragments small enough for the body to cleanse them out on its own,” Glassberg explained.
Erase the Past has helped 4,000 young people, most of them Hispanics, who were linked to the gangs in Greater Los Angeles.
“Erase the past, get rid of the vestiges of your past. If you’re not able to get rid of your physical scars, it’s often very difficult to get out of there, to get ahead, to leave the gangs,” is the message that Dr. Kane has for all those who are seeking an opportunity to start anew tattoo-free.
Among the people who have taken advantage of the program is Angel Usi, a 29-year-old Filipino, who lived in the gang world starting when he was a little boy.
“At 14, I was already part of the gangs and at 17 I was put in jail. In all, I served five years and received parole at 21,” said Angel, who prefers not to speak about his painful past in the presence of his three children.
“When I was in jail, I thought about my life and about the things that were not happening. ... And I thought that it was time for a change,” he said.
Today, thanks in part to the Erase the Past program, Angel seems to have made it, and on some weekends he acts as a mentor for kids at Houghton Park teaching them how to fix bicycles and clean the place up, as part of his community service. EFE