Peninsula tattoo removal program relaunching 

The Tattoo Removal Program serving ex-gang members and victims of domestic abuse in San Mateo County is expected to reopen today after a two-year hiatus.

The program was shuttered when the laser machine used for removal procedures broke down in early 2012. A replacement has finally been purchased after a fundraising effort brought in more than $125,000.

A former Salvadoran gang member will be among the first to go under the new laser beam at the Redwood City Police Activities League Community Center. He has waited two years to complete the removal of a clown from his face — a process he began when he was just 14 years old.

The former gang member and others are on a path to reform, but find that traces of their former lives of violence — often emblazoned on their hands or necks — can be a hindrance.

“Many employers are very uncomfortable in accepting people that have visible gang tattoo marks out of concern for the safety of the workplace,” said Manuel Velarde, a juvenile specialist for the Redwood City Police Department who co-founded and supervises the Tattoo Removal Program.

“When they finally decide to stop all this violence and drama, very few people actually want to help them. This program gives them the last thing they need to start a new life,” Velarde added.

The free program is jointly operated by the Redwood City Police Department, San Mateo County Probation Office, San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office, San Mateo County Sheriff’s Activities League and Redwood City PAL.

Since launching in 1995, it has served more than 2,000 reformed gang members, ranging in age from 9 to 65.

Five years ago, it also began to treat survivors of another kind of violence — domestic abuse — in which victims were forced to brand themselves permanently with the name of a perpetrator.

Participants must be either working or attending school and must demonstrate that they are not taking part in any gang-related activities. They are also required to perform 40 hours of community service, usually by sharing their stories in gang-prevention presentations.

“When they go back to their communities, they bring back a message of hope and redemption, and a message that law enforcement is here to help them,” Velarde said.

A team of volunteers, mostly plastic surgeons, performs the removal procedure. It is long and painful, requiring multiple sessions spaced roughly two months apart. Six sessions can get rid of professionally done work, but as many as nine may be required for homemade tattoos.

For most, however, it is worth the sacrifice.

“I had a tattoo of an ex on my neck and it was kind of big,” said one past participant, who is now a mother and whose ex-boyfriend was well-known for his gang activities. “It was visible … the first thing people see.”

“I decided to get it removed,” continued the woman, who wished to remain anonymous. “Now it’s like they’re looking at me. They’re looking at my eyes now, not trying to read what’s on my neck.”

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S. Parker Yesko

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