Marks make the man no more |

Marks make the man no more

Gregory Crofton, Tahoe Daily Tribune
Dan Thrift/Tahoe TribunePhysicians assistant Bob Burkenbine zaps the back of a 19-year-old former gang member with a laser. Large tatoos take up to a year to remove. Each treatment eliminates about 15 percent of the tatoo's ink.

Snap, Snap, Snap. The laser filled the room with an aroma of burning body hair.

“It feels like a sunburn,” said a laser technician. “It’s a definite heat feeling, like taking a real hot light and forcing it into the skin. It’s like a rubber band snapping on you.”

Laser tattoo removal has been around for years, but these days the skin under the hot light often belongs to a former gang member.

“I don’t want to be on the streets no more, you won’t get nothing good out of it — just trouble,” said a 16-year-old former gang member from South Lake Tahoe, who served time in juvenile hall because of gang activity.

His homemade tattoos depict small, ink spider webs and the words, “brown pride.” The teen-ager, who refused to give his name, said he’s getting his tattoos removed so his younger brothers and sisters don’t follow in his footsteps.

Removal costs money and sometimes having tattoos in the wrong place can make it difficult to get a job. South Shore agencies found a temporary solution — $5,000 in grant money from the Foundation of the State Bar of California. It will fund a tattoo removal program for former gang members.

“We are hoping this is seed money,” said Steven Maxwell, a deputy at the El Dorado County Probation Department. “Since these kids decided to do it, 10 other kids want to have it done. So it has had some effect already.”

The idea for the program was born when teen-agers told Maxwell and South Lake Tahoe police Officer Scott Heng that they had left a gang and wanted to erase the tattoos that came along with membership.

Tahoe Youth and Family Services joined probation and the police in the grant application.

Key to the program, expected to begin March 1, is the involvement of Dr. Martin Salm’s clinic on Kingsbury Grade, the Advanced Cosmetic Surgery and Dermatology Center. They have offered use of their laser, at cost, to treat people accepted into the program.

Salm has removed the tattoos of troubled teen-agers at no charge since 1998. He recently bought a laser so he no longer has to rent one from the Bay Area each week. Maxwell and Heng brought the first two teen-agers accepted into the tattoo removal program to Salm’s office in August. Each former gang member received one treatment before Salm decided to suspend laser treatments until he was able to buy the laser.

“We’re doing it for free, cost of material only,” Salm said. “I don’t want people to be stereotyped. I’d like them not to have to pay the rest of their lives for something they did when they’re young.”

Depending on the color and size of the tattoo, removal can require six to eight laser treatments spread over a year. The cost of one treatment ranges from $150 to $450 depending on the number of laser hits needed. Yellows and reds require the most work.

The upstart program is meant to assist teen-agers who have left a gang but, depending on the need, adults may be accepted for treatment.

“We have to see how much of a need there is,” he said. “If the need is great we will address this matter with the community service agencies to see if they have an interest in assisting us.”

Anyone interested in the program should call Maxwell at (530) 573-3092.

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