Erasing the Past, Creating a Future, Part 3: The Doctor

This is the third in a three-part series on Homeboy Industries' free tattoo removal program.
Part 1  |  Part 2

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Some of the Homeboy Industries volunteers who attended a training on a new tattoo-removal laser. Photo courtesy of Homeboy Industries.

The waiting room is like any other medical lobby. Rows of unremarkable chairs sorted into neat rows, some awkwardly facing each other with the receptionist’s window serving as the gatekeeper. She hands patients clipboards with paperwork that must be completed before the doctor will see them.

What is different, though, are the patients. There are no fever-stricken toddlers or patients waiting for their annual check ups; these are gang members. Some are court-ordered, and some are here on their own volition, but all are taking steps toward transitioning out of a life of crime and violence. Members of rival sets patiently sit side by side. They’re here to get their tattoos removed. They’re here looking for a second chance.

Dr. Troy Clarke grew up in North Long Beach and witnessed what gangs can do to friends, families and the communities they thrive in. Clarke is one of the over 40 volunteers who help make the tattoo removal facility at Homeboy Industries possible, donating his time and expertise in laser ink removal in order to help those trying to start over.

“Like all of us, Long Beach has changed since I was a child and I’m always looking for the best in people now,” Clarke said. “When they come through these doors, you have to believe in the potential in them. This may be the last place they can come before, you know…”

Clarke’s commitment to the program at Homeboy can be measured by the length of his commute. Once a month, the doctor boards a plane in Massachusetts and flies cross country to Los Angeles where he works in one-week blocks, for free. The Jordan High School alum who’s been treating patients at Homeboy for eight years said it’s simple; he’s just too invested to simply walk away now.

He’s part of a team of volunteer doctors that keep the cogs of Homeboy’s tattoo removal program turning. Clarke estimates that Homeboy has serviced over 1,200 different gang sets, treating thousands of tattoos a month, equalling hundreds of thousands of square inches of skin. In July, the center treated 1,027 patients which amounted to nearly 5,000 tattoo removal procedures. The youngest patient treated was 15 years old and the oldest was 74. Of the over one thousand treatments performed in July, almost 400 were for persons on probation or parole.

The tattoo removal program is a starting point for many who end up under the laser and even those that become employees at Homeboy Industries. It’s notorious among inmates who are hoping to start over once their time is served. And once they find their way to Dr. Clarke’s exam room, they discover there’s so much more available to them than just the erasure of their pasts from their skin.

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Photos by Jason Ruiz

“This is a gateway,” Clarke said. “This is a place where people come if they know nothing else about the program. And once they get here it’s kind of where the rebirthing starts. They work on these tattoos, they work on their inner-selves, there are a lot of programs that they also attend and become a part of. By the time they removed their tattoos they’ve also focused on their selves and all the other areas where they have issues.”

The process is painful but the injuries that gang tattoos inflict on job prospects, and depending on the neighborhood, the threat to ones life, make the moments of flesh-searing pain more tolerable. Clarke describes a tattoo as being kind of like a statue permanently embedded under the skin and his laser as a chisel. He chips away at street names and affiliations with every flicker of green light. As the beam hits the ink it makes a popping sound. The amount of ink left in the skin determines the volume of the procedure. The level of noise translates the amount of pain Clarke is inflicting.

He’s careful to limit the exposure time of their skin to the laser light because he knows that too much power or too much time can damage the skin. He works carefully to remove as much ink as possible, carefully adjusting the settings on the laser machine as he switches between different pigments of ink. The procedure is going to cause a first degree burn, there’s no way around that, but any further destruction to the skin can cause hypo-pigmentation. Each tattoo can take anywhere between 2-50 sessions to completely erase. On top of that, patients are only allowed to visit once per month to ensure the skin heals completely.

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The long and painful process that awaits behind the closed doors of Clarke’s exam room isn’t reflected by the amount of people calmly waiting their turn in the waiting room. The procedure hurts a lot, to put it bluntly. There are spongy stars with smiley and sad faces drawn on them to squeeze, which provide an outlet for the pain that many compare to being hit with hot grease or a fresh rubber band snapping your skin repeatedly. The pain is as real for the patients as the obstacles that are lined and shaded on their skin.

“But for most people that come through here, it’s going to hurt them much more in life if they keep them on,” Clarke said of the process.

Not to mention, the program saves participants huge amounts of money. Clarke said it’s not uncommon for other tattoo removal centers to charge anywhere from $30-$150 per square inch for every treatment required to completely remove the ink. The cost of removing the tattoo quickly surpasses the initial investment to have it applied.

“I was eager to do it because it closes a lot of doors for me, you know?” said Raymond, a patient and employee at Homeboy who has a full sleeve and 23 other tattoos. “I’ve been getting tattooed since I was 12 years old and now I’m 18. I didn’t really want to take this one off because it’s my son’s name, but I gotta take it off because it’s on my hands.”

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Each person that enters Clarke’s procedure room is treated with respect and compassion. To him, they’re not thugs or felons, they’re people trying to turn their lives around. His conversations are as gentle as his laser settings, he asks about their lives, their children and their job hunts. And then the negotiation begins to get consent to remove as many tattoos as possible.

“You have your whole life ahead of you, we don’t want to have all these limitations on your skin,” Clarke said to a 22-year-old woman who drove over 3 hours with her dad for her first appointment at Homeboy.

A 16-year-old inmate was the next to be seated across from Clarke. Clad in an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs, his doctor visit was ordered by a judge for his own protection. The gang tattoos on his hands may be problematic while serving time, so the judge ordered them off. Clarke, through nearly a decade of removing gang tattoos, recognizes one on the inmate's eyebrow, mentioning that if the judge knew what it meant it would surely be in his mandate as well.

“What about this one on your face?” Clarke asked calmly. “One day you’re going to have a child and a family and you’re going to need a job.”

Clarke insists that the inmate should have it removed, to no avail.

Every visit ends in the same warm, compassionate fashion that it started. Clarke applies a topical spray to help ward off infection and reminds the patients to apply sunscreen to aid in the healing process. Then he sends them on their way with the hope that on their next visit there will be a positive update about their lives. He’s here to help, and the 3,000 miles separating Cambridge from Los Angeles will not deter him.

“Everyone that comes through these doors, they’re trying to put their past behind them,” Clarke said. “But they need help. They need guidance. They need support. If there were a Homeboy Industries in all the different communities, it would really make an impact.”

Homeboy Industries is currently in the middle of a crowd-funding campaign to bring their aging equipment and operations into the 21st century. The program need new lasers, cooling machines, an electronic medical record, numbing creams and much more to continue to provide the level of care they've come to be known for. To donate, click here.



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