Bright Idea: Tattoo Removal Creates a ‘Clean Slate’ for Former Gang Members in Search of Jobs

Photograph of tattoo removal in progress.

If you’re a young person with gang-related tattoos and you’re looking for a job, even the Army won’t take you.

Such was the experience of a young man who came to Clean Slate, the tattoo removal  program at the social services agency Social Advocates for Youth, in Santa Rosa, CA. The Army is generally okay with non-facial body art but prohibits gang-related and racist tattoos anywhere on the body. The young man had to prove he was getting his tattoos removed before he could enlist.

Young people who’ve been in gangs and gotten into trouble with the law face many barriers to employment: criminal records, lack of training, lack of soft skills like knowing how to answer the phone and understanding the importance of showing up on time.

The most visible barriers, though, are the tattoos that mark their former allegiances. Free or low-cost tattoo removal programs like the one at SAY offer these young people a chance to make a fresh start.

Tough to Get Hired

Toni Abraham, who manages SAY’s employment services, says though some businesses will hire former gang members with tattoos, they often want youth to hide the markings under long sleeves and trousers.

Covering up isn’t an option for some former gang members. “It’s really hard to find a job if you have tattoos on your face, your neck and your hands,” Abraham says. “If you’re applying for the same position as 60 to 100 people, if those other people don’t have tattoos, they’re going to be looked at first.”

Other young people want to move up from bank teller to branch manager or pursue a career in nursing without having to worry how they’ll be perceived if someone discovers their tattoos.

Removing tattoos also lifts a psychological and emotional barrier for many youth and marks their gang affiliation as a thing of the past.

“If you’re trying to change, gang tattoos can make you feel bad inside,” Abraham says. When young people have their tattoos removed, she says, “It boosts their self-esteem. They’ll tell you people look at them and treat them differently.”

Costly Procedure

Clean Slate offers tattoo removal to 14- to 24-year-olds. Youth must do 25 hours of community service and pay an enrollment fee of $50. That’s much cheaper than the $1,000 to $6,000 it might cost them to get their tattoos removed on their own, Abraham says.

The program costs $21,000 a year and is currently paid for by a grant from the City of Santa Rosa. Renting the laser machine is the biggest expense.

Sessions are held at a local health clinic two evenings a month. A paid laser removal technician and a paid medical assistant handle the treatment and the paperwork, while a volunteer doctor offers young people anesthesia or medicine to numb the pain afterward. Abraham also provides baggies of ice, lidocaine to relieve itching, and antibiotic ointment.

Youth go through three to six laser removal sessions of 3 to 10 minutes each. For one young man with tattoos all over his body, the painful process took nearly 4 years.

Most young people who get their tattoos removed also make use of SAY’s job readiness training and other employment services. “It’s very important to wrap it into employment services,” Abraham says.

Abraham is trying to raise the $50,000 it would take to buy a laser machine. If that plan works, Clean Slate will be able to offer sessions more frequently.

“I’ve got 35 people on a waitlist, and I get calls every day,” she says.


Photo of tattoo removal by Erik Castro for Social Advocates for Youth.

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