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Zapping the Past

It's slow and painful, but tattoo removal beats being recognized as a gang member.



By Brenda Wilhelmson

Amiel sits on the edge of the examining table and pulls down the neck of his T-shirt. He points to a six-point star tattooed near his collarbone. It resembles the Star of David, but it marks the 32-year-old as a Gangster Disciple. Dr. John May leans in for a closer look and, fingering a lumpy scar near the tattoo, asks Amiel how he got it.

Amiel explains matter-of-factly that he was pushed through a window. "You want to see some scars? I'll show you some scars," he says. He lifts his shirt and turns his broad, meaty back to the doctor. It's pocked with gouges from the same incident. He peels the shirt off over his head, and May hands him a pair of protective glasses before pulling down his own. "This'll probably take a couple of treatments," the doctor says. "The fact that you had this for 20 years and it's still this dark..." He picks up a clear cylinder that's attached, by a cord that runs through a metal arm, to a machine that looks like a squat filing cabinet.

As Amiel eyes him warily, May holds the open end of the cylinder over a line in Amiel's star. "I'm just going to do one little area so you know how this feels," he says. Tat. There's a white flash in the tube and a tiny white welt rises along the line. Amiel's head pivots away from the star and he winces.

"We'll do this one little spot," May tells him. "Ready?" Tat tat tat tat tat. Amiel squeezes his eyes shut and his mouth quivers and twists. "It burns. It's kind of like bacon grease, right? Getting splattered with bacon grease," May says. "I recommend putting some ice on this later today. Help keep it from swelling up. If this starts showing any blisters, or there's a lot of redness around it, give us a call, okay? You all right?"

"It hurts," Amiel says. "I tell you, it hurts."

May tells Amiel that tat was the sound of ink splattering, "the ink sort of exploding into the skin." Amiel's eyes bug. "Your own body will work to clear the ink away. Over the next several days and weeks you're going to notice that it's going to start to fade. There's usually very minimal scabbing. The skin isn't affected that much. The laser is really pretty specific for the ink."

He tells Amiel that the odor in the room is from his hair follicles burning.

As Amiel ambles into the next room, where a nurse puts salve and gauze over his puffed-up star, May sticks his head out into the hall and says, "Next."

There's a never-ending stream of "nexts" at May's Operation Clean Break, which has been ridding gangbangers of body art for about a year and a half. It started out running its laser one day a week at the Sinai Family Health Centers clinic at Madison and Hamlin, but quickly became a six-days-a-week operation. Potential clients must wait months for a first appointment, and it's often difficult to get through on the phone. A second site was opened in April at 5401 S. Wentworth. "We get calls from all over the country," May says. "We get people from Green Bay, Wisconsin. People have come up from Florida. Got calls from Connecticut."

The popularity of the program is due in large part to its affordability: for-profit companies charge big bucks to take off tattoos by laser. One Clean Break client had shelled out $600 to LA Laser in Chicago--$200 a visit for the removal of three relatively small tattoos--a far cry from Clean Break's $25 per visit fee.

May got the idea while working as senior staff physician for Cermak Health Services at Cook County Jail, where, along with hundreds of gang-related stabbings and beatings, he also treated numerous botched attempts by inmates to get rid of their own tattoos. "Sometimes they'd try to burn them off with cigarettes, other times they'd use a hot spoon," he says. "Their tattoos were putting them at risk for injury from rival gangs."

Occasionally May sent inmates to Cook County Hospital for skin grafting, which was the only removal technique in use there. If the inmate's tattoo was big enough, doctors would peel it off, remove skin from somewhere else, and quilt it over the formerly tattooed area. If the tattoo was small, they'd cut out the lines and stitch the skin back together, leaving a scar in the shape of the tattoo.

In 1995, May started learning about a relatively new technology for removing tattoos with lasers. Prior to 1990, the lasers used in tattoo removal worked by heating up the whole tattooed area, destroying the skin as well as the ink and leaving nasty scars. The newer "Q-switched" lasers are capable of targeting just the ink, and leave the skin and natural pigment pretty much intact. May found someone who was willing to haul such a laser into Cook County Jail for free once a month, but jail administrators said no.

"One reason they gave us was that police need these tattoos as identifiers," May says. "Another excuse was that taking off tattoos would lead to more fights in jail. Another comment was, 'We're not a social-service agency.'"

The last line of reasoning really riled May. The oldest of three sons of a middle-class family from Racine, Wisconsin, the 35-year-old says his parents hammered home the idea that each person has intrinsic worth, something to contribute to society. In med school at Loyola he'd taken an interest in public health, and afterward he'd worked for a year in Africa. As a resident at Cook County Hospital, from 1989 to '92, he'd patched up countless gunshot victims, only to see them sent right back onto the streets. "I began recognizing that we do a lot of work in medicine to prevent certain illnesses like heart disease and different cancers, but that we were doing very little to prevent violent injuries," he says. "Violence is a public health issue."

When his residency was up, May took the job with Cook County Jail. There he found other physicians who shared his concerns, and in 1994 they surveyed almost 600 Cook County inmates, a quarter of whom had been shot at least once in their lives and half of whom had suffered some kind of violence-related injury. The typical shooting victim was more likely to have seen someone else get shot at a young age, to have previously served jail time, to have contracted a sexually transmitted disease. And he was more likely to have a tattoo.

Undaunted after the jail nixed his program, May took the tattoo removal idea to the outside. Sinai, which runs clinics in several gang-infested neighborhoods, was willing to donate space and staff if May could get the laser; within two months he and his colleagues had raised $60,000 to purchase a used machine. In January 1996, the month the program got up and running, May left his job with Cook County Jail to become assistant medical director of the jail system in Washington, D.C. He still flies in at least once a month to work at Operation Clean Break.

Patty, a 16-year-old with long, dark brown hair and pouty lips, says she's tired of her homemade gang tattoos because they're ugly. Statistically, Patty's not a typical Clean Break client. Though 40 percent are Latino like her, two-thirds are men. Most fall between the ages of 21 and 30, and as of November only about 250 of the program's 1,400 participants were younger. Maturity obviously plays a role in the decision--and if Patty's mother hadn't marched her in here, she says, she wouldn't have come.

Patty's getting rid of the six-point star on her left wrist, "Malo," the nickname of an ex-boyfriend, on her leg, and an "AD" configuration on her right calf--though it means "Always a Disciple," she says, "and I'm still one.

"I think everybody, if they know how to do tattoos, feels comfortable doing them on themselves," she says. You thread a needle, tie a knot near the eye, and twirl the needle between your thumb and forefinger until it's wound like a spool. You leave a little bit of the needle tip exposed and soak the thread part in india ink. The saturated string will keep the tip wet.

"My friend started doing one for me," she says. "She started poking my leg and it hurt. I said, 'Just draw the outline and I'll do it myself.' At first you do it softly, little dots. And then if you want it to be real dark and to blend in to be a thick, straight line, you dig in sideways with the needle and you pop up. You break the skin. The only way you know that the ink's actually going into your skin is 'cause you start bleeding."

Patty's mother, Emma, crosses her arms and frowns. Her daughter traces a freshly exploded tattoo with her finger. May pushes the protective goggles back on his head. "You gotten into any trouble over these tattoos?" he asks Patty.

"What do you mean, trouble?"

"Fights, or bad situations?"

"I always get into fights," Patty replies.

"It's hard for her to determine why she's getting into fights because of her tattoos," Emma retorts sarcastically.

"I can cover them up. You know that's why I always wear pants," Patty tells her.

"It's caused a problem with her new high school," Emma says. "We're in Bolingbrook now, and she needs to wear sweat pants or long socks to attend gym. We moved just eight months ago and they don't want her exposing her tattoos. That's part of the reason she's getting them off."

"It's because it looks ugly in the summer," Patty argues.

"It's really ugly in the summer," Emma agrees. "She's had her legs covered up when it's 100 degrees out. Now she's got her name on her belly, big and bold, so she can't wear a bikini or hip huggers. Why people put their own name on their know, get a T-shirt." She looks at her daughter and laughs. "Above her left breast she's got some more tattoos that, at this point, she's not ready or willing to get off. And she labels her legs every time she changes her boyfriend. It's really frustrating."

Before they moved from Back of the Yards, Patty was a habitual runaway who spent a lot of nights at Audy Home. When she was at home, Emma was afraid to walk with her anywhere for fear of getting shot.

"I told her she would have problems trying to get jobs and in school, and it turned out that was the case," Emma says. Patty once tried to get a job at a movie theater, but she went to her interview wearing a baggy gangbanger getup--wrist tattoo exposed--and she left unemployed.

"She started getting tattoos in '94, when she was 14," Emma says as a nurse spreads salve on her daughter's tattoos. "She got affiliated with this gang. But I think at this point she is slowly but surely realizing what the negative effects are."

"I don't like these tattoos now. I want other tattoos," Patty says. "Professional tattoos."

The path tattoos have taken from symbolizing status in ancient warrior cultures to representing disrespect for the laws of "civilized" societies isn't terribly easy to trace. Tattooing is thought to have flourished as a decorative art form in Japan as early as the fifth century BC; by the 13th century AD, however, it had been revived chiefly as a means of marking known criminals. At some point between then and now, it seems, society's undesirables began marking themselves--today in Japan, the yakuza crime syndicate is known for its elaborate tattoos--and the practice transcends cultural and geographical boundaries.

A case in point: in Pachuca, Mexico, members of a late-19th-century bandit gang got tattoos of a cross with three lines radiating from the top; they stood for murder, rape, and arson. In the 1950s, the symbol was adopted in the United States by the Hell's Angels. Today, the Harrison Gents, a north-side gang formed in the 1960s by dissident Latin Kings, requires its members to be tattooed with a cross with four lines radiating from the top.

Joseph, a 32-year-old former Gent who's related to the founders, says he wasn't aware of the cross's history, though he carried it on his skin in several places. The one on his left forearm has been erased almost completely by Operation Clean Break, but the one on his left hand he disfigured himself, before the program was around.

"I burnt that one off with a toothbrush and toothpaste," he says. "I scoured it off and after it scabbed up I had to rip the scab off three times--and it still didn't take all the ink off. So they went over that with the laser and almost all the ink is removed now."

Joseph also has a "cover-up"--a gang tattoo that has been drawn over--and this piece has caused him some problems. "I've had young gang members question me about it, which could mean serious trouble," he says. "They want to know, 'What was it? Who did you ride with?'--that kind of stuff. By saying I don't have nothing to do with it, I don't want to get involved, they might think I'm an enemy right away and do something. And if you have a tattoo and you're well-known, younger people might want to get a reputation off that. The guy who is well-known might be 40 or 50. The young guys weren't even born when he was gangbanging, but the guy's a legend so they might just shoot him. Make a name off that. Automatically take on his power."

Kenny, 28, wants out of the Satan Disciples, and as a result his life is constantly in danger. He gets shot at regularly. His ex-girlfriend caught two bullets in the face for him. His current girlfriend is lame because of a shot to the leg that was intended for him. He has had four cars burned. His home has been vandalized. His mother's home has been vandalized. His youngest brother, who looks like him, is sometimes beaten up by mistake. His other brother, who is a police officer, doesn't want anyone to know they're related. Kenny doesn't go to family gatherings, and he can't play outside with his kids in Pilsen, where he lives.

"Every time I go out they see me and start with me," he says. "They came and broke out all my windows in my house and pulled a gun on me and told me to get flowers and a suit ready for my wake. Last Saturday they jumped out and shot at me."

Kenny's been to Clean Break five times in the last year; in that time the laser has erased from his back a pitchfork and the letters "SD," for Satan Disciples. But he's still a long way from unidentifiable. His left ring finger is tattooed with a pitchfork. He has the name "Sindbad" and a pitchfork on his left forearm. A big six-point star and the Roman numerals "VI" decorate the top half of his back (they indicate that he's from 51st and Wood). On his lower back five devils hold up a heart with a "D" in the middle, all under another pitchfork. On the right side of his face, next to his eye, is a teardrop.

While Kenny was serving time in prison for stabbing a man who died during a melee, his cousin, Anthony, another Satan Disciple, was shot and killed during a traffic altercation. He says he got the tear in memoriam. But gangbangers typically get tears like that for people they've killed. Once a group of Latin Kings noticed Kenny's tear and the pitchfork on his finger while he was shopping at the mall with his daughter. He had to call security and have the Kings escorted out. Another time he was walking out of a movie theater in Evergreen Park when a bunch of gangbangers noticed the same tattoos. "They start throwing down the pitchfork and stuff to me," he says. "When I got to my car they busted out my windows."

To protect yourself, you have to "move on"--that is, proactively harass, beat, or kill--someone with rival gang tattoos, says Mike, a 26-year-old Latin King who's been to Clean Break four times in an attempt to distance himself from his gang. Mike has "Boulevard Latin Kings" printed across his chest in two-inch block letters. Among other tattoos, he also sports a traditional heart-and-dagger design in which the name of an old girlfriend has been covered with five dots that represent the noble-sounding code of the Latin Kings: love, honor, obedience, sacrifice, and righteousness.

"I used to strip people down," he says. "'Hey, roll up your pants legs, take your shirt off. If you don't, you get moved on.' I did it to guys and girls. For girls I gave them respect. Roll up your sleeves and your pants legs. I knew everybody in the neighborhood, and if I didn't know them and they had a tattoo of something other than Kings, then I would move on them. You have to watch out constantly. You can't trust nobody.

"Like in Humboldt Park, these girls killed two guys," he continues. "The two guys were Latin Kings and the two girls were Maniacs, Latin Disciples. The girls took them over to Humboldt Park, told them, 'We'll give you a good time.' They split up the two guys and another girl came from behind a tree and shot them."

Now, however, Mike worries about protecting himself from his own gang. "Between Christmas and New Year's they caught me at the gas station," he says. "Tried to give me a violation [a severe beating]. They had a car in front of me and a car in back of me and they told me, 'Get out of the car.' And I'm like, 'Uh-uh.' And they're like, 'You need to come to the neighborhood, take care of what you got coming. We'll put you on retirement [an especially severe, final violation].' Then I was talking to another King--he's a good friend--and he was telling me they'd give me one violation, then to put me on retirement they'd give me another one. I know I'd wind up in the hospital. If they were going to give me my violation out--now, that's another story. That's when I start thinking which cemetery I'm going to."

Eddie, another 16-year-old, rolls his wheelchair into May's laser room. His mother, Robin, follows him.

"We moved to Champaign in February of '95," Robin says. "He was shot in October of '94 on the south side of Chicago. Gang related. He was 14. And he's a paraplegic now. But I must say he's doing wonderfully well in Champaign. He has a job. He's going to school. And he wanted these things off himself."

Eddie takes his shirt off. He sucks in air and bites his lower lip. May applies the laser to his pumped-up arms.

"The move was in the making prior to his accident," Robin says. "I was trying to get him out of the city, Englewood. I was buying a house and it took awhile. Are you all right?" she asks Eddie. Eddie is gripping her hand. "You can squeeze harder if you want. You're doing a good job. Those spots."

"You can leave those on there," Eddie tells May.

"Just..." Robin starts.

"No, no," Eddie interrupts.

"Let's do them quick," May says.

"No, no, that's OK."

"He said let's do it quick," Robin says.

"No, no, I said no. I said no, no, no. I'm done," says Eddie. "I can't take it anymore. Thank you very much."

"We'll get you some dressing in the room next door," May says. "Just take some Tylenol. Use some ice. How many times were you shot?"

"Um, twice. In the nose and in the back."

"It skidded across the nose," Robin explains. His nose looks fine. "The other bullet is still inside. It's resting under the right clavicle. It went through his spine."

Eddie wheels himself out the door. "Can't get upstairs," he says. "That's the only thing that's changed. I just can't get upstairs."

"Your attitude about the gangs has changed," Robin says.

"Yeah," Eddie says halfheartedly. A nurse dresses his tattoos.

"Eddie wasn't staying with me when he got shot," Robin says. "He had run away from home."

"I didn't run away from home," he says. "I just left home.

"I was shot eight blocks from the house, 61st and Hermitage," Eddie says. "I was with two people. Two guys walked up. They all had guns. I didn't have a gun, not on me. That was the one time I didn't. But there was one up on the garbage can. The two people walking up, one shot and missed. It grazed my nose. I ran and a dude jumped out of the bushes. The guy in the bushes was across the street. That's who shot me in the back."

"Rumors were going around the neighborhood that he was set up," Robin says.

"It had nothing to do with set up. It just..."

"I don't think he would want to accept that he was set up. If it happened that way."

"If I was set up, then why? Sometimes I still go over there. I still see 'em. All the times I been over there they would have shot me again."

"Maybe they did just what they were setting out to do."

"I know what it was. I know why they did it. Look, I don't want to get into the reasons, but I know who they were and I know why they did it."

Eddie sits back in his chair. He refused to talk to the police about the incident, so the guys who nailed him are free. He also says he's still a Disciple and that he's just getting his tattoos off to increase his employment opportunities. He says he's fine with his paralysis as well.

"I'm straight with it," he says. "It don't bother me none."

"Yeah, sometimes it does," Robin argues.

"No. It don't ever bother me. It don't bother me 'cause I still drive cars. I still get around."

"You don't drive cars anymore because no one will let you."

"I still drive cars. She just don't know about it."

"Well he doesn't drive mine. And he has a mentor and he refuses to let him drive his. He has a girlfriend who let him drive, but she doesn't do it anymore because she knows it's dangerous. He was driving with sticks. Pressing the pedals with handheld sticks.

"From a psychological point of view, there are two things that can happen out of a situation like this with a young person," Robin says. "It can be a rude awakening, or it makes them feel invincible because they survived. He's a survivor. And he has a lot of growing up to do."

"It's easier to pick up girls now," Eddie says. "You just grab 'em and put 'em in your lap and ride around with them."

"Oh, you're so silly," Robin says, laughing.

After Eddie and Robin leave May says, "If Eddie really faced up to this he'd be miserable. You can tell there's a whole lot under there and sometime it's going to hit him hard.

"In our study at the Cook County Jail of those who had been shot before, only 10 percent said they received any sort of counseling after their gunshot wounds," he says. "I'm convinced that those who go through the trauma of a gunshot wound or other significant violent injury and don't receive some mental health support carry those wounds around with them. And those wounds manifest in other ways--often violent ways."

May wants to eventually hire a full-time case manager or social worker who can counsel Clean Break's clients. He also wants a researcher to scientifically evaluate Clean Break's impact, which won't be an easy task. The program's clients sometimes stop coming after a few treatments, and it's difficult to find out whether their tattoos disappeared or just got lighter. It's also hard to keep track of people who want to erase their pasts, literally. And since the program is young, a few of its early clients are just now completing the process, like Joseph, the former Harrison Gent.

During his last jail stint--for robbery, auto burglary, and unlawful restraint--Joseph says, "I started studying and expanding my mind and realizing things." He got a job tutoring fellow inmates, and after his release in 1992 he enrolled at St. Augustine College, where he earned an associate's degree in liberal arts and a certificate for substance-abuse counseling. He has worked as an addiction counselor at Cook County Jail and with a temporary outreach program called New Beginnings, where his job was basically to be a positive influence on fourth, fifth, and sixth graders in the Humboldt Park area. Now he's waiting to hear from the Department of Children and Family Services about whether he's got a job counseling teenagers.

With New Beginnings, "I saw fourth-graders with tattoos," he says. "Their older brothers or parents were bringing them into the gangs. Some of them would be wearing little rosaries with different colored beads. I'd say, 'Who gave you that?' And they'd say, 'My father,' and I'd know that their father was incarcerated because that's what they wear when they're incarcerated. The beads are the colors of their gang, and they give these rosaries to their kids and their kids are out wearing them on the street.

"So wherever I go I take the Clean Break program," he says. "I put flyers up with tape. I've probably referred 100 people. How many have gone I don't know, but I had a client in the Cook County Jail, he was a Bishop, and his parents moved to a Disciple neighborhood and he got stabbed. He got his tattoo removed, he moved to another neighborhood, he's working, he doesn't have to watch his back anymore. He's going to have a baby real soon.

"I've seen others," he continues. "Women who had tattoos on them and had daughters, sons. They had their tattoos removed and now they can go wherever they want. Take their kids to the museum, to the lake. They can move around freely. Can look in the mirror and not see these ugly things on their face or arms.

"It used to be that once you had a tattoo, that tattoo's for life. You're a gang member for life. Now that's totally shattered. They have a laser to get rid of your tattoos. You don't have to be a gang member for life. You can go on to better things." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photots by Katrina Wittkamp.

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