It’s 10am on a Thursday, and the waiting room for tattoo removal at Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles is already half full. Dr Paula Pearlman, an ER surgeon with over 30 years experience, introduces herself as Dr P to each of her patients, before asking which tattoos they are looking to remove. She is one of over a dozen volunteer doctors at Homeboy who remove gang and potentially employment-jeopardising tattoos for the community. Homeboy has the highest rate of tattoo removal in the United States – and all treatments are free.
Anyone can visit Homeboy for free tattoo removal, although there is a priority list in appointments as well as removals, and the doctors request that while they are removing the tattoo over around 18 months worth of treatment, patients not get any more tattoos.
There’s a priority order for removal: anything gang-related comes first, then visible tattoos on the neck, hands or face. Tulio, Dr P’s first patient for the day, has a pot leaf on his stomach the size of an A4 sheet of paper, but Dr P shakes her head. Mistakes, she says, are the lowest priority, especially ones that can be easily covered when going for a job interview. Tulio seems disappointed, but he’s hardly in a position to complain, especially as Dr P lasers away a large tattoo on his arm and another on his calf. It’s Tulio’s first treatment, and Dr P explains that the laser itself feels like being snapped with hot rubber bands. Halfway through, Tulio jokes that he’s glad for the tinted glasses that protect his eyes and hide his tears.
The laser itself looks like something out of science fiction, though that’s mostly the gyroscopic arm it’s mounted on for ease of manoeuvring. The business end almost looks like a stick mixer, and it thwaps rhythmically as Dr P traces the tattoos. At first the treatment seems almost too effective – the tattoos fade beautifully – but Dr P explains this is called “laser snow”, where the heat of the laser causes the skin to whiten and fade the tattoo temporarily. By the time Tulio’s treatment is done, the tattoos have returned almost to normal, but will fade over the next six weeks as the cells clear the debris of the ink.
It will take six to eight treatments for the tattoos to fade completely – some of which Tulio will be unable to have done at Homeboy because he’s transferring his job at Home Depot to Vegas, closer to his parents. He works in the garden department, although the pot leaf tattoo probably wasn’t intended as a mark of dedication to his job. Outside of Homeboy, laser tattoo removal can cost around US $300-$500 per treatment and is not covered by most health insurance as it is considered a cosmetic surgery.
Dr P has been volunteering at Homeboy for around 12 years now, usually in three hour shifts where she sees around 15 patients. She’s proud of her work, and very precise with the laser. Tulio recommends she take up tattooing herself, with her clean lines and steady hands. She’s not a big fan of the current laser, a newer model which is flashier but less familiar than the larger, older machines that are still in the treatment room. Her biggest achievement, she says, has been in the purchase of a skin cooler – essentially an AC unit with a hose – which reduces pain and blistering when used in tandem with the laser.
She’s seen some serious tattoos in her time. Her strongest memory is of a woman with her postcode tattooed all along her jaw line, complete with the words “fuck off” on her cheeks.
There is another priority in removal, Dr P reveals after seeing her third patient: any tattoo related to domestic violence, abusive relationships or past trauma. With female patients, she largely has a “don’t ask” policy to avoid any triggers. If a woman requests a tattoo that may not initially meet her criteria, Dr P will give her the benefit of the doubt. She has a similar policy for gang-related tattoos. It’s hard to keep up with the myriad of symbols associated with the gangs, so she’ll remove any that her patients tell her are gang related. Dr P’s third patient of the day – the twin sister of her second – wants to remove a tattoo of a man’s name on her upper chest. He’s an ex, she explains, a gang member who threatened to burn her with acid if she did not get the tattoo. Upon examination, Dr P realises that the last two letters of the tattoo are scarred from the tattoo needle going too deep, and, while she can treat the ink, the scarring will remain. The patient nods, understanding and keen to be rid of the tattoo regardless. She holds her sister’s hand through the painful treatment.
Most of Dr P’s patients are having their first or second treatments, though one older woman is onto her fourth, after their first two did nothing to fade her tattoos. They are all of Latin and Hispanic backgrounds, as are most of the Homeboy clientele and the majority of LA gangs. One patient’s moral support talks us through the tattoos he used to have – teardrops on his cheeks, a variety across his neck and skull – which have all been completely removed by the Homeboy doctors.
The last patient I see Dr P with – the older woman on her 4th treatment – compliments the skin cooler, saying it makes the treatment far more bearable. Dr P beams.
“I wish my arms were longer,” she says with a grin, “so I could pat myself on the back.”