Loma Linda University Health recently launched a tattoo removal program to help people efface visible gang-related or anti-social tattoos. The program is part of an endeavor to curb violence associated with gangs for which the Inland Empire region in southern California, United States, holds a reputation.
Sigrid Burruss, a trauma surgeon at Loma Linda University Health, said that lately she has seen more violently injured patients under her care — especially from gang-affiliated altercations. She founded the tattoo removal program with the support of Juan Carlos Belliard and the Institute for Community Partnerships, to approach the issue from a specific angle: removing patients’ stigmatizing tattoos could help them de-identify as gang members and avoid remaining the targets of repeated assault.
“Trauma teams at the hospital don’t want to see our trauma patients come back from reinjury,” she said. “In addition to fixing up patients in the hospital, we also want to try to address the reasons why they were injured or harmed to begin with.”
Burruss said tattoos are more than ink on our skin; they have the power to signify identity, ideology, and affiliation. Removing gang-related or anti-social tattoos visible on the face, head, neck, or hands can help people protect themselves and embody the self-image they wish to project to the world.
The tattoo removal program aims to serve those with a history of involvement with gangs, living in poverty, and minority or underrepresented individuals looking to remove tattooed markers of their past to move on, reintegrate into society, and find employment.
Eligible patients must have completed at least ten hours of community service through organizations of their choice, such as homeless shelters, community gardens, or churches. Burruss said the requirement is a way for the program to engage individuals to connect with their community in a meaningful manner.
The program has so far garnered an overwhelming response, Burruss said. Within the program's first few days of operation, more than 100 interested individuals reached out with requests and inquiries. Burruss reports that the demand continues to be solid and steady, testifying to the need it is fulfilling within the community.
Thirty-four-year-old David Loya, who helps people transitioning out of prison to obtain jobs, is one of the patients who has expressed gratitude for the program. He said he is removing his own face tattoos because they don’t represent who he is anymore, and doing so will boost his ability to help his clients when speaking to business owners on their behalf.
“When I look into the mirror, my tattoos remind me of who I was, and I am not that person anymore,” Loya said. “I've noticed that when I talk to people, they see my face, and they are stand-offish. Though they eventually warm up, I want to get the tattoos off my face, so I don’t get misjudged and [also] look into the mirror and not be reminded of my past mistakes.”
Loya, who grew up in the Inland Empire, said in adolescence he “got involved in the streets” and “hung around the wrong people,” leading a lifestyle that came with tattoos, specific dress codes, and substance abuse.
He frequented juvenile halls and prisons for seven years, getting more and more tattoos to express his identity as a gangster, he said. The last time Loya found himself in prison facing a serious sentence at 27 years old, he said he experienced a fateful change of heart: “I was sitting in the prison cell, and I was just tired. I thought, ‘This is not cool. I don’t want this life.’ ”
Once released from prison, Loya attended a Christian men’s home at The Way World Outreach, where he said he changed his mindset and developed a strong calling to help others. He now works as a leader in his church to help parolees, inmates, and those out of prison transition back into society, obtain jobs, and start businesses. Getting his face tattoos removed was just another step toward being able to help others, he said.
“It feels good. It feels like the right thing to do, and like I’m forgetting the past and moving forward to a brighter future.”
Like many other patients, Loya is returning to the tattoo removal program for multiple visits since wounds must heal for weeks between tattoo removal sessions. He said he is excited to reach the final session and see the outcome.
“I’m thankful for this tattoo removal program because it is helping me erase a mistake that I never thought I could,” Loya said. “I’m happy there is a program for people out there who get a tattoo they wanted, but now they have a different mindset. This program is a solution for that.”
The LLU tattoo removal program is made possible by a team of dedicated nurse practitioners, program coordinator Andre Ike, and funding support from the Institute for Community Partnerships, Burruss said. “Without them, this program would not exist.”
Burruss said tattoo removal programs like Loma Linda University Health’s form part of a greater initiative to support those who need it most in the community. Given the area’s low socioeconomic status and low rates of high school and college graduation, Burruss said it is “not surprising” to see the levels of violence.
“It becomes all of our obligations to approach the issue from many different angles to support and build up the community that we are in,” Burruss said. “This tattoo removal program is one of them.”