When youth are committed to the care of Oregon Youth Authority, one stop on the road to rehabilitation for some is the tattoo removal program, where youth can literally erase parts of their past.
Without the program, OYA youth with gang-related tattoos can return to the community and struggle to move on from their old lives.
“When they would go out, it would be difficult to get a job or go to the military (because of their tattoos), so they would just get in trouble again and go back to (OYA) facilities,” said Griselda Solano-Salinas, an OYA multicultural services coordinator who helped start the tattoo removal program.
Not only could they get in trouble with the law, she said, but she’s known of some cases where youth have been shot in their old neighborhoods because they sported tattoos associated with a rival gang.
In the mid-1990s, the Oregon Psychiatric Association (OPA), in partnership with OYA and local law enforcement, took on the cause of combatting what appeared to be a rise in gang activity.
Through a grant from the Meyer Memorial Trust, the group purchased a laser tattoo removal machine and started the program in 1997 at Hillcrest Youth Correctional Facility in Salem (the program moved to MacLaren YCF when Hillcrest closed in 2017).
Solano-Salinas helped build the tattoo removal program from nine youth to up to hundreds of applicants at one time.
The program prioritizes visible gang-related, sex trafficking-related, and anti-social tattoos. It’s available to all OYA youth, although Rogue Valley has opted to work with Valley Laser & Aesthetics, a Medford medical provider, at a discounted rate, finishing tattoo removal work on 72 youth in less than four years.
Over the past 10 years (data before 2010 is unavailable), more than 500 youth have applied for OYA’s tattoo removal services.
For Miguel V., the tattoo he wanted removed was a dollar sign on his temple, something he got while under the influence of alcohol.
“I was young, I was dumb, I just wanted to get attention,” he said. “When I hit 16, I thought, I need to get a job one of these days and I have a tattoo on my face. This is not going to go for me.”
According to program staff and volunteers, many youth have done their own tattoos while high or drunk. One youth was inebriated when she tattooed a swear word on her neck. Another even had a tattoo of his name misspelled.
Juan N. said he came into close custody with no tattoos, but the culture at the time influenced him to get ink.
“Being incarcerated and being of color, you get pressured into things,” he said. “There’s a little negativity here and there.”
He admits that his mom’s persistence is what got him to have his tattoos removed, as he anticipates his release into the community next year.
“It taught me to pay attention to how she’s feeling,” he said. “It has the stigma of a criminal or someone who did something wrong.”
Miguel’s main motivation to remove his tattoos was to be a better example to his younger siblings.
“That plays a big part of it,” he said. “Right now, I don’t like that picture I gave them. I’m just trying to get my stuff together and try to be there for them.”
Under the Laser
When OYA youth apply for tattoo removal services, they are selected based on the size, age, and depth of the tattoo, as well as what kind of ink was used, said Javier Perfecto, who took over the tattoo removal coordinator role last year.
“There are different layers of skin, so some tattoos take up to 20 sessions (to be completely removed),” he said.
About 15 youth are served by two doctors at each three-hour bi-monthly session. Nurse volunteer Jan Verser is present for every single shift.
“Every day, at 8:30 sharp, she’s there; she never calls in sick or late,” Perfecto said. “I really admire her. She never says no. The doctors take turns, but she’s there every time.”
Verser was a staff nurse and health services supervisor at Hillcrest when the first laser machine arrived in her clinic.
“I just think it’s a wonderful program,” she said. “It does so much good that when I retired, I stayed involved (as a volunteer).”
Verser meets with youth before each procedure to make sure they know what to expect and spends time with them afterward to help them take care of the former tattooed area.
She’s also witnessed the evolution of the laser machines over time. The latest ones work with different colors of ink and blow cold air on the tattoo site to reduce pain and promote healing.
“The machine feels like a rubber band snapping on your skin; it leaves a burning sensation,” Verser said.
Each youth must wait six weeks between treatments to allow for healing and prevent scarring.
The necessary wait time might also contribute to why many youth only get one or two treatments before being released. This also might impact why a recent OYA research report states there is no evidence that participation in the program improves post-release success for youth.
“Early on, it was hard to work so intensely with youth and not know what happened to them,” Verser admitted. “It’s a process I went through in my own mind, to be satisfied that I could see positive changes (while they were with us). You’ve just got to do what you do and hope for the best.”
But for those who do come back for multiple treatments, their transformation seems to be clear.
“The program has removed some of (the past) and helped me get my head back on track,” Juan said. “Words can’t describe the changes that can come with it. It’s pretty extraordinary.”
What makes the program extraordinary is the medical volunteers, like Verser, who have donated hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars worth of work.
Dr. Susan Denman, a dermatologist who was consulted by OPA, was the first physician volunteer with the tattoo removal program. She invited fellow dermatologist Dr. Carolyn Hale to join shortly after. Both doctors were so devoted to the work, they even pooled together their money to replace a broken laser machine at one point.
Though Denman had to stop volunteering several years ago, Hale has stayed involved.
“It felt like it would really help the youth and it was something I could do,” Hale said. “It was a good fit for me to be able to help those kids. I’ve had teenagers, and they make some really bad decisions at times. If you can take away some of that, then why wouldn’t you?”
An article in the Salem Statesman Journal newspaper helped recruit four more volunteer doctors: J. Mark Roberts, David Elmgren, Malcolm Snider, and Harold Boyd.
Though their interactions have been brief, Miguel is impressed with the program volunteers.
“They’re good people over there,” he said. “It shows that they care for the youth. They want you to take a step to turn your life around. They don’t want to see you incarcerated your whole life.”
OYA’s Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Relations (OIIR), which runs the tattoo removal program, also cherishes its volunteers. After Roberts died last summer, OIIR organized a ceremony in which the other volunteers and Roberts’ wife gathered to plant a sequoia tree on the MacLaren grounds in the doctor’s honor.
“Dr. Roberts always said, even if you had the money, we would not accept it,” Solano-Salinas recalled. “He said, ‘We do it to help these youth get a better future.’”
Hale also said the reason she volunteers is to improve the youths’ lives and that of society as a whole.
“These kids come from places where it’s not easy, then we send them back to that same community,” she said. “I want them to have every benefit they can have. I have faith that what I do helps a little bit with these kids, to get them back to being someone that we’d all be happy to have as a fellow citizen.”
And the program could always use more people willing to work to make a difference.
“We’re always looking to recruit more volunteers,” Verser said. “We need this to be carried on after we’re not able to do it anymore.”
Volunteers with medical backgrounds and a willingness to be certified in tattoo removal are welcome. Anyone interested can contact Javier Perfecto at 503-979-7490 or Javier.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tattoo Removal by the Numbers
- More than 500 youth applied for services
- 71% of youth who applied received services
- 66% of treated youth were people of color
- 39% of treated youth were serving Department of Corrections commitments