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Cover story

Disappearing tattoos

NCR Staff
Mission Hills, Calif.

Jeff Scott was 13 years old, on a weekend pass from a boys’ home when his uncle was paroled from prison. The uncle, at home when the boy arrived, broke up a Walkman radio and converted it into a tattoo gun.

“He got us both high and did these,” said Scott, indicating a right arm filled with tattoo scrollwork, “and this.” On his left hand was a swastika with a lighting bolt through it. “I wear a glove when I work,” he said, “so people don’t see it. I clean carpets and this nice Jewish lady, a real sweetheart, she gave me a tip. She said keep it covered. I’m getting rid of it so people don’t get offended by me.”

Scott is having the tattoo erased at a Saturday morning clinic created by Sinsinawa, Wis., Dominican Sr. June Wilkerson at Providence Holy Cross Hospital here. Gradually, with a laser, the swastika is being zapped away.

Two dozen people waited their turn. Some were seated on the carpet in the corridor. Others stood. Still others were being prepared to be zapped.

Susana wants a small tattoo removed because she thinks it harms her image. After one laser treatment, the tattoo, above the bone at the base of the first finger on her left hand, is fainter. One or two more treatments will remove it.

Susana had the tattoo done originally, she said, because of “peer pressure, nine years ago.” She was 15. “I’m having it removed because people automatically judge you,” she said. “They think you’re involved in a gang, and it’s not so. It’s degrading.”

There’s nothing cute or funky about what Wilkerson’s established at the hospital. She got the idea from a Los Angeles police officer who saw it as a way of fighting gang violence. Tattoo removal is expensive, but Wilkerson’s genius is that Hoffman -- and all the other Providence Holy Cross clients -- pay with community service.

She’s making tattoo removal possible for people with no money to spare. These are people whose tattoos get in the way of employment, of relationships, of life itself. In extreme cases, they are tattoos that inspire hatred, sometimes enough to kill.

It’s painful having the treatments. “Hurts like hell,” said one man with bandage-swathed arms. But the signal the tattoos send can hurt even more. One of Wilkerson’s 200-plus clients thus far, was standing at a bus stop. His gang-related neck tattoo had not yet completely faded. He was jumped at a bus stop by a rival gang member and stabbed.

Wilkerson is saving lives and jobs. “I had a young man, 22, married, wife and two kids in my office, crying, tattooed up to his neck,” said Wilkerson, 76.

He was working as a butcher, and wearing turtlenecks to hide the tattoo. One day he couldn’t tolerate the turtleneck and took it off. His boss saw the tattoos, and he was out.”

Wilkerson was obviously still moved on the young man’s behalf. “He was getting $10 an hour, too, that’s pretty good money for unskilled work.” She can help him get the tattoo removed, but she couldn’t get him his job back.

One man waiting his turn for the laser treatment explained: “Employers are offended. No, not offended, they’re intimidated, like I’m not a trustworthy person. They get this idea from the tattoo. When they get to know me they change their minds.” He had the tattoos done when he was a much younger man. Now they’re coming off, “because of my children and because I want a better job.”

“Lots of stories come through here,” said Wilkerson. “The theme that runs through them all is family background.”

Once a high school teacher

For the Dominican sister, this is a world and a work far removed from the high school teaching she started out in more a half century ago. Though she originally had no intention of entering religious life -- “It seemed fairly dowdy” -- she read that the Dominicans had started a street preaching team, “and that attracted me. I thought I’d like to go out and see some activity in terms of spreading the gospel and Jesus’ message.”

Wilkerson entered the order right out of Fontbonne College in St. Louis. But there was no Dominican street preaching. The year she read about it “was the only year the Dominicans did it,” she said.

Her St. Louis connections remain strong. They include a twin brother, Msgr. Jerome Wilkerson, who has served as a priest in the St. Louis archdiocese all his life.

After 27 years of teaching, she switched to social justice work. With Catholic Charities in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., she gave conscience-raising parish talks on the connection between social justice and the gospel, and then connected parishes to feeding programs in poverty areas, particularly for Native Americans. She was in community organizing, too, helping set up the South Minneapolis Coalition, and working part-time at St. John Vianney Seminary in St. Paul.

To expose the students to poverty -- and help provide material for the papers they would write on social justice -- she would take them to Guatemala for a week. “I knew the Notre Dame sisters working down there. They had what looked like a 1930s motel so they were able to accommodate visitors. The students learned a lot because they could go into houses and see what wasn’t there. They came back anxious to talk to youth groups and people about their experiences.”

From Guatemala Wilkerson shifted to work with the Sanctuary Movement in the early 1980s at Little Flower Parish in South Bend, Ind., a major church in the underground movement sheltering Central American refugees fleeing persecution and violence.

“I had a lawyer, Wendell Walsh, on my peace and justice committee and he gave talks, homilies almost, explaining why someone who was a lawyer would get into this kind of work,” she said. “We sponsored three or four people.”

Wilkerson called the Indiana state authorities and told them the parish intended to harbor the illegal refugees and defend them. “The guy who answered the phone said, ‘Oh no, we just can’t deal with that.’ So we were never bothered,” she said.

In 1989 Wilkerson went down to Bolivia and became involved in political issues, but that ended when she broke her leg in a motorcycle accident and was shipped back to the States. Next came California. “I was on crutches, I was 65 years old, but the Parish Nurse Program out of Providence Holy Cross Hospital here hired me. I like putting things together. I did staff support, staff education.” The hospital had tapped into the Parish Nurse Program, now nationwide, that was founded in Chicago by a Lutheran minister, the Rev. Granger Westburg.

Anti-violence work

Wilkerson met with pastors, helped set up parish nurse visits and, while operating out of Queen of Angels Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital, volunteered for the hospital’s violence prevention coalition in the San Fernando Valley. The valley has its share of violence. If the area, currently part of Los Angeles, were a separate city -- which it’s pressing for -- it would be the nation’s seventh largest city. Gang-related violence is a constant source of trauma patients at Providence Holy Cross, which operates one of the valley’s two trauma centers.

Through the anti-violence coalition, Wilkerson met Sgt. Belinda Robinson of the Los Angeles Police Department. One day she told Wilkerson that she saw a great need for a tattoo removal clinic. Such a clinic, she said, would be one way of reducing violence.

With Wilkerson at the helm, the hospital set up a committee. The program is now in its third year. Queen of Angels Hollywood Presbyterian liked what Providence Holy Cross was doing and now it has a tattoo removal clinic, too.

Money is a major factor in tattoo removal.

Commercial tattoo removers typically charge $250 a treatment to work on a small tattoo, which means up to a $1,000 or more before the vein-blue skin picture disappears. For a huge tattoo -- and Marc Hoffman is covered neck to navel and all the way down his back -- it has been two years so far and another four years to go.

Hiring the laser machine and its technician, Freddie, takes money. The hospital gave $25,000 to start and the Providence Health System gave $75,000 last year. This has been followed by a three-year $300,000 grant from the California Endowment Foundation, which manages the monies Blue Cross-Blue Shield put in public trust when Blue Cross changed into a for-profit corporation.

The professional staff is volunteer, people like Dr. David Friedman, who does a Saturday morning every six or eight weeks. Another Saturday regular, Evelia Garcia, a volunteer who is a junior at Providence High School, Burbank, was applying the post-laser salve. After treatment, the tattoo area is covered with salve and cling wrap, taped tight to keep air out.

Friedman was ready for the young woman on the table. With a tattooed butterfly above her bra strap on her upper back, she’d already had her lidocaine shot to numb some of the pain. Everyone in the room wore special glasses as the blinding laser hummed -- and burned. During the laser operation, tears come to the patients’ eyes, they wince, they might cry out a little. The burning pain lasts at least 24 hours. But when the bandages come off, the tattoo has faded to a lighter shade. For most it’s one down, two or three more to go.

Far more than that in Marc Hoffman’s case. What’s remarkable about Hoffman’s muscular torso and arms is not the complexity of the tattoo and, in its own way, the artistically interwoven scrollwork that remains, it is the fact that there is absolutely no trace on his neck and shoulders of the tattoos he once shrank from.

Hoffman, now 31, was a very young man serving a prison term when he was tattooed. Part of turning his life around was the determination to take the long road to removing what must have been nearly a square yard of tattoos. Around his neck, above the collar line, he had racially offensive symbols -- and the name of a former girlfriend.

His fiancée of today, said Hoffman, “handled it very well. I was ashamed to walk into a party with her.” Not any more -- it’s gone. Hoffman had an uncle who served in Hitler’s SS. And its symbol is still plain on Hoffman’s left forearm. Already, with a long sleeved shirt, Hoffman had reduced his tattooed visibility. Looking down the road, Hoffman said that by the time he and his wife have children, the tattoos will be gone.

“Two days ago,” said the private investigator, “a client came in and handed me a large check. That wouldn’t have happened with tattoos coming out of my shirt collar.” Hoffman tried a commercial tattoo removal service, but they didn’t use lidocaine. It hurt worse than having the tattoo done, he said. He pays his tattoo removal clinic bills in volunteer service with middle school boys and girls clubs.

It’s an easy tradeoff for clear, clean skin.

Jeff Scott, with the swastika on his hand, agrees. “It’s gotten me into trouble, into fights. People get offended and challenge me over it. Sometimes people see it and just totally don’t want to deal with me. They don’t get to know me. People who do know me know I’m a nice guy.”

For Wilkerson, walking through the clinic, talking to Susan and Marc and Jeff and Javier, “It’s like I’m watching all these transformations right in front of me.”

There’s a coffee/waiting room. Not long ago, said Wilkerson, she looked in and saw a young man with a big “P” (for Pacoima) on his neck, and another young man with “SF” (for San Fernando) on his. “Out on the streets,” said Wilkerson, “the Pacoimas and San Fernandos are killing each other. Here they were talking, having coffee together,” she said. “I loved that.”

The people waiting understood.

National Catholic Reporter, April 27, 2001