When Dr. Morgan Magid was a dermatology resident at Northwestern University in Chicago, his instructor asked him to remove a tattoo from an ex-gang member’s arm.
“He was in a gang and he wanted out,” Dr. Magid says decades later, recalling the long, slow process of treating the patient with an old CO2 laser, which kills tissue and forms a scar. Afterwards, he asked his professor, “What are we doing this for?”
His professor answered, “Because it’s the right thing to do.”
“That was it—Done,” says Dr. Magid, who has been doing the right thing ever since. He’s sitting in the treatment room of the Tattoo Removal Clinic in Santa Cruz, where he volunteers his time as clinical director, using his skills to help people start a clean slate. He’s come here directly after work at his day job as a local dermatologist.
When he began practicing in Santa Cruz 25 years ago, Dr. Magid started cutting tattoos out of people’s skin—often during his lunch break. Word got around, and Lynn Miller from Santa Cruz’ Youth Resource Bank and the (late) Judge Tom Black contacted him to start an official program. With the support of Dominican Hospital, they bought their first laser in 1997 and the Tattoo Removal Program began.
Since then, thousands of people have had their tattoos removed through the program. Today, the program is run through a partnership between Dominican Hospital and Catholic Charities Diocese of Monterey County. In addition to tattoo removal, they offer immigration, counseling and family supportive services. Eight doctors donate their time to the program, most volunteering once or twice a month.
Like Dr. Magid’s first tattoo removal patient, seventy-five percent of participants are former gang members. Many others are walking away from a past of drugs, crime or prison. Others got tattooed as misguided youth, and later find they can’t get a job because of visible markings on their bodies.
“Either their lives have changed or they are in the process of redirecting their lives,” says María Ascensión Runciman, a licensed clinical social worker and program director. “The tattoos are holding them back.”
But with tattoo removal running $200 or more per session—and most tattoos requiring numerous sessions for complete removal, sometimes over several years—the cost is prohibitive for many. Through the Tattoo Removal Program, each session costs only $20, and even that fee is negotiable.
“We never turn anyone away, but we do want them to pay,” says Runciman. “If they can only afford a dollar, we charge them a dollar. We want them to be committed.”
Participants also must show their commitment by doing 20 hours of community service before they’re eligible for the program. Once they finish their hours, they come in for an in-depth interview and, afterwards, the removal process can begin.
“If I’m going to give my time, people need to have some buy-in,” says Dr. Magid. Tall and slender with grey hair, he wears glasses and a button-down shirt—not the type you’d connect with tattoos. But his expression is friendly and nonjudgemental as he peels the anesthetic dressing from inky letters that festoon the neck of his first client of the night, Alfredo Garcia.
“I want to see if I can come once a month for a while,” says Garcia, who works for a lettuce company in San Juan Bautista. “I’m getting promoted to supervisor and that doesn’t come around too often.”
“Sure,” the doctor says as he dons dark orange-tinted glasses to protect his eyes from the laser. He passes a pair to Garcia. The stork-like laser machine hulks beside him, a Nd:Yag laser that Dr. Magid refers to as “the workhorse for tattoo removal” because it’s effective for getting rid of not only blue-black ink, but also the more vibrant red.
Laser tattoo removal works by a process known as selective photothermolysis, where a specific light wavelength is absorbed by ink molecules embedded in the skin. When the laser hits the ink, the pigment becomes superheated and bursts into fragments—leaving non-pigmented skin cells relatively untouched. Over a period of six weeks, the tattoo progressively lightens as macrophages, Pac-man-like cells in the body’s immune system, gobble up the fragments and carry them away.
When the laser hits Garcia’s neck, there is an audible “snapping” sound as the tattoo’s pigment explodes. Garcia winces, describing the feeling like bacon grease hitting his flesh. But he says it’s worth the pain. “I’ve been waiting for this opportunity to be supervisor all my life,” he says, gasping between words as the doctor finishes with his neck and moves on to the ink that adorns his wrists and arms. “They say tattoos aren’t professional. I want to be a good supervisor. A good role model.”
The desire to be a good role model is a motivating factor for many who chose to remove their tattoos, including J. Espíndola, who went through the program 15 years ago. “They were just backyard tattoos,” he says, describing how as an adolescent he used sewing needles wrapped in ink-soaked cotton string to mark his body with his name, the name of a girlfriend, and various symbols. By the time he reached his early thirties, the girlfriend was gone, his life had changed, and he regretted the tattoos.
“I wanted to go back to school and get a nice job,” he says over the telephone. “The ink was getting in my way. I wasn’t proud of it anymore.” So he began the process of removing his tattoos over a period of four years. Today, a tattoo-free Espíndola works in Santa Cruz County as a children’s mental health counselor. Many of his clients are the same age he was when he first decided to mark his body with ink—and many are beginning to dabble in gang culture.
“I work with a lot of kids in early high school who are starting to go down the wrong path,” he says, explaining that they may tattoo gang symbols on their bodies without realizing the consequences. Even a few strategically placed dots make them a target for rival gangs, and the wrong path quickly becomes a slippery slope.
“It’s better to intervene before they’re too involved,” says Espíndola. He talks with them about their goals in life, and how their personal goals may conflict with gang goals. Once they decide they want to take a different path, Espíndola starts the conversation about removing their tattoos—and refers them to the program.
A couple of young teens, one in braces, come to the night session to remove gang insignias from their arms. A young woman from Watsonville comes to have black ink removed from her eyebrows because, she says in Spanish, “People confuse me for a chola”—a female gang member.
Runciman says it takes a lot of courage to go through the program. “The tattoos become part of their identity. There is a lot of soul searching they have to go through.”
One of the last visitors of the night is Maricela Bonilla from Watsonville, who is removing her tattoos—a curlicue of stars behind her ear and the face of a Gerber baby on her forearm—for her 10-month-old son. “I want to give him a better example,” she says.
When asked if she has a story behind the Gerber tattoo, she says, “No,” then turns her head and smiles, adding, “It’s being removed. The story is being removed.”