Long Beach Telegram 12.10.08
Long Beach tattoo-removal program helps ex-gang members build on future
By Phillip Zonkel, Staff writer
Posted: 12/10/2008 04:08:40 PM PST
Dr. Edward Glassberg, left, and Dr. Bryna Kane use laser treatments to remove Angel Usi Jr.’s tattoos as part of their “Erase the Past” program. After 40 treatments, Usi, who initially had 14 tattoos, has just six left to be removed.
(Jeff Gritchen / Staff Photographer)
Angel Usi Jr.’s eyes are covered with tinted, protective goggles while he grits his teeth and clenches his fists against his chest.
He lies on an examining table at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center and exposes his abdomen, which is seared with numerous tattoos, including four large capital letters and the name “Jennifer.”
Dr. Edward Glassberg stands over Usi with a laser arm. The instrument crackles as it zaps the crude, amateur tattoos. As Glassberg navigates the laser over each letter, Usi’s skin turns red.
“It hurts,” Usi says.
Dr. Bryna Kane stands next to Usi, clutching his hand and comforting him.
“Are you OK?” she asks. “Do you want to take a break?”
“Yeah,” Usi says.
Glassberg stops for a moment, and when Usi nods his head, the doctor resumes the procedure, zapping the black ink.
Usi is participating in Erase the Past, a monthly clinic held at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, where area residents who are former gang members, and at-risk youths ages 14 to 25, volunteer for tattoo removal. Some come in on their own, others are referred by school guidance counselors, police officers, probation officers or other authorities.
All participants are screened and must have clean police and probation records, with no reported gang or gang-related incidents - such as tagging or selling drugs - in the past six months.
The clinic is free, but participants must complete five hours of community service
prior to each tattoo removal appointment. The average tattoo takes six sessions to erase, Glassberg says.
Usi, 28, a former gang member now working as a supervisor at a regional environmental company, has been coming to Erase the Past since 2002, when he had 14 tattoos. Following his 40 th treatment, he is vigilant about having the remaining six erased.
“Once a treatment is done, you feel better about yourself, especially when you look in the mirror,” Usi says. “Most people, when they make a change, change an outfit or cut their hair. This is drastic. This is a new beginning for me.”
Erase the Past was launched 10 years ago by Kane, 53, and Glassberg, 50, two local dermatologists.
Kane founded the program based on her own experience as the daughter of Holocaust survivors. Named after her grandmother, who was one of the first female physicians in Vienna and who was later killed in the Holocaust for trying to save neighborhood children, Kane vividly remembers seeing the permanent marks from the Nazi death camps on her relatives who attended her parents’ summer parties.
“It was 80 degrees, and all these people were wearing long sleeves because they didn’t want anyone to see the tattoos the Nazis had burned into their arms,” says Kane, during a late morning interview following a recent Erase the Past clinic. “I was a child, so I was eye level to these people’s tattoos. When I would ask them what they were, their eyes would well up with tears and they would avoid talking about it. I remember them as ugly scars.
“Being marked was always interesting to me,” she says.
During her collegiate and medical school pursuits in Los Angeles and Northern California from the early 1970 s to mid-1980 s, Kane had numerous encounters with other types of ugly scars, the remnants of attempted, self-inflicted tattoo removal by people desperate to erase their pasts.
Some of them endured botched salabrasions (an outdated tatoo removal procedure) while others resorted to cigarettes as medical instruments, leaving terrible burns or disfiguring scars, or in some cases, causing staph infections, Kane says.
By the mid-1980 s, during her Los Angeles-
area dermatology residency, Kane began working with laser technology. In 1995, she was established in her Long Beach-based private practice and sophisticated lasers were being used in tattoo removals.
The laser, emitting four to six joules per square centimeter, penetrates the outer layer of skin and fragments the tattoo ink into minute pieces that the body digests and disposes.
The laser doesn’t penetrate deep enough and its energy isn’t strong enough to inflict scarring - only a superficial skin burn that, after having a topical cream applied, heals in about a week with no signs of the original markings.
With the technology available, Kane was committed to removing modern tattoos that were painful reminders of their host’s past. She enlisted Glassberg’s assistance, and the colleagues spent two years doing outreach in the Long Beach community.
In 1998, with support from the city of Long Beach, the Long Beach Police Department, the Long Beach Department of Parks, Recreation & Marine and Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, Erase the Past was launched.
Since then, the doctors at the clinic have treated more than 4,000 participants. Eighty percent of them are former gang members and the other 20 percent are at-risk youths, former cult members and white supremacists, Kane says.
Erase the Past is one of, if not the most, comprehensive program of its kind in Los Angeles County and one of several throughout California, according to a Press-Telegram analysis of similar programs.
For many young people trying to break the bondage of their past, their tattoos stigmatize and ostracize them from parts of society, setting off a vicious cycle, preventing them from attaining job interviews or gaining employment, among other things. That fosters low self-esteem and a bleak sense of the future, according to social workers and psychologists.
Erase the Past, however, offers clients a fresh start in a nonjudgmental, respectful environment, says Lisa Massacani, police services specialist with the Long Beach Police Department.
“It’s important for everyone to have a second chance. A lot of the people we get in Erase the Past are young people who would not have access to the resources to remove these tattoos,” she says.
“There are a lot of kids who want help and want to break the cycle of violence,” Kane says. “They are trying to re-educate themselves and rematriculate into society.
“But until they erase their past, they can’t move forward,” she says. “Not only is a tattoo an emotional vestige of their past, it’s a physical reminder.”
Though the procedure is free for participants - such as the 19 who showed up at a recent clinic - it usually is expensive. The average tattoo removal costs $40 to $50 per square inch, with a tattoo generally covering 8 to 10 inches. The process might take six to 10 sessions.
Erase the Past does come at a price. Its annual budget is $35,000 to $40,000, and many expenses are covered by various groups and agencies, Kane says.
Long Beach Memorial Medical Center provides the space, facilities and security. The police department screens potential applicants and posts one on-duty officer during each monthly clinic, and most of the clinic’s staff is volunteer.
However, Kane and Glassberg have to rent the laser and hire a technician to operate it. The monthly expense is around $2,000, Kane says.
For the past 10 years, donations have covered half of the program’s costs, while Kane and Glassberg have paid the rest out of pocket, she says. Nevertheless, Kane wants to enlist more professional volunteers, purchase a laser for the clinic and expand Erase the Past into a weekly program.
“If not for us, nobody would be doing this,” she says. “We are a volunteer organization that provides a lifeline to improve their self-esteem free of charge.”
The number of sessions required for a tattoo removal depends on the patient’s skin type, the location of the tattoo and the quality of the tattoo ink. Amateur tattoos, such as the ones scrawled on gang members, generally are easier to remove than professional ones because they use less ink.
Phillip Zonkel, (562) 499-1258
Erase the Past
For more information, call (562) 997-1144 or (562) 818-9950.