Removing extreme tattoos frees people to forge new life paths

    August 11, 2015

    The Tattoo Removal program of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Monterey, CA works to help people who want to forge a new path in life by removing their most egregious tattoos-tattoos with dark meanings such as gang symbols, swastikas, profane words and phrases, racist slogans, macabre images, and marks that signal violence, abuse, and exploitation.

    The program serves nearly 300 people of all ages each year by providing tattoo removal with the help of five volunteer doctors; with their tattoos removed and their economic and social opportunities broadened, participants are free to take the first steps on their new path in life.

    Extreme tattoos often make it hard for people to move beyond their past to forge a brighter future in new jobs, new relationships, and new lives. Unless they can come up with the money for laser tattoo removal, they are stuck with these often painful, permanent reminders; most tattoo removal services charge at least $100 per session and most tattoos require several sessions to remove. The process for many is simply out of reach.

    “We’re not really talking about decorative tattoos,” said Maria Runciman, who directs the program. “We see former prostitutes who were branded by their pimps with tattoos, people who were in abusive relationships and want the names of their abusers removed. Some people are embarrassed about their gang tattoos and don’t want their kids to see them. Some want to go into the military or get a job and need that swastika or swear word removed.”

    Before being admitted into the program, participants are interviewed by Runciman and one of the doctors who perform the laser procedures. “We want to understand their motivations, to see if they are really ready to change, and to prepare them for it,” said Runciman. “It can be a very difficult transition for some. They begin to feel that they are losing their identity and culture.” The program also requires participants to do 20 hours of community service and contribute $20 per session.

    Started in 1993 with the support of the local Knights of Malta group and the work of a single volunteer doctor, the program first served minors coming out of juvenile detention centers with gang related tattoos. Later, the program expanded to include adults up to age 26, many coming out of prison with the same kind of tattoos. In the fall of 2013, a large tattoo removal program run by a local Catholic hospital merged with the program, providing more resources to continue this healing work.

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