Photo by Vikesh Kapoor
Jorge Alonzo was twelve years old when he got his first tattoo. Born in San Diego, Alonzo was one of thousands of kids in Southern California who, young and impressionable, aligned themselves with gangs, often along ethnic lines. He had the number 13 tattooed on his left shoulder. The 13, in Sureño culture, represents the thirteenth letter of the alphabet, M. By getting this tattoo, Alonzo was declaring his allegiance to La Eme, the Mexican mafia.
In 2009, Alonzo moved to Gresham, Oregon, just east of Portland. He fell in with a crew of other Latino kids similar to the friends he’d left in San Diego. They called themselves 217 SE—referencing the southeast block they claimed—and committed small-scale crimes like petty burglaries and writing 217 on walls. One night, Alonzo and his friends happened upon some boys tagging at their park, and they chased them down. One boy got away, but Alonzo caught the other boy and began pummeling him with a baseball bat, breaking his legs and his jaw. Alonzo fled, but the police were soon tipped off. He was arrested and charged as an adult for assault in the second degree—a Class B felony. He was fifteen years old.
IN BARRIO-STYLE FONT, HE GOT THE LETTERS BPS, AN ABBREVIATION FOR BROWN PRIDE SUREÑOS, SEALING HIS AFFILIATION TO ONE OF THE LARGEST AND MOST NOTORIOUS LATINO STREET AND PRISON GANGS.
After a three-month intake at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, Alonzo was sent to Snake River Correctional Institution in the eastern Oregon city of Ontario. Being locked up in Snake River was different than being on the relatively calm streets of Gresham, and Alonzo quickly learned he’d have to do much more to prove himself and establish his worth.
“I was really young, so when you’re with a group of guys who are thirty, forty years old, they don’t want to take you seriously,” Alonzo says. “You have to prove you really want to be in these big boy shoes. You want to show your stripes.”
Alonzo immediately began fighting. He fought against white supremacists, rival gang members, and other prisoners who had been accused, rightly or wrongly, of an offense. Senior gang members—or OGs—selected many of his targets, and Alonzo was honored to be a part of the gang, though he did not necessarily have the choice to opt out.
“You’re not supposed to hesitate,” Alonzo says. “If your shot caller or your OG tells you, ‘Go handle that,' you’re supposed to do it, no hesitation. Your OG will tell you, ‘Look, there’s a situation going on, this person owes us money, go handle that.’”
THAT’S WHEN HE BEGAN TO REALIZE THE GANG LIFE WAS NOT WHAT HE’D BELIEVED IT TO BE—AND NOT A LIFE HE WANTED TO CONTINUE.
With the aid of contraband material, Alonzo also accumulated more tattoos, further asserting his loyalty to his new family. He had three dots tattooed onto his hand, representing “Mi vida loca,” my crazy life. On his neck, he got PDX3—an amalgam of PDX (shorthand for Portland) and X3 (representing the number 13). In tribute to his hometown, he got the letters SD underneath his left eye, and 619, San Diego’s area code. His largest tattoo covered his stomach. In barrio-style font, he got the letters BPS, an abbreviation for Brown Pride Sureños, sealing his affiliation to one of the largest and most notorious Latino street and prison gangs.
But when Alonzo was released one month before his eighteenth birthday, he found he didn’t have the same support system outside as he thought he would. He crashed on friends’ couches and worked odd jobs for little to no pay. Many of his friends had left the lifestyle or refused to help him when he needed help most. That’s when he began to realize the gang life was not what he’d believed it to be—and not a life he wanted to continue. He wanted to begin fresh, but before he could do that, he would need to remove his tattoos.
“I ain’t gonna lie, it was big for me,” Alonzo says. “Having my tattoos was something that was a part of me. I was nervous. I thought, ‘Am I ready to give this up?’ And I was.”
Alonzo learned about a program in downtown Portland called Project Erase that offered low-cost tattoo removal for people who have left gangs, escaped abusive relationships, or whose tattoos have otherwise been a serious impediment in their lives. Professional tattoo removal services can typically range from hundreds to thousands of dollars, beyond many people’s reach, but Project Erase is reserved for those living below 200% of the federal poverty level, and pricing is based on a sliding scale, from $25-$55 per session. The program began in 2003 as an outgrowth of Outside In, Portland’s nonprofit organization serving Portland’s homeless youth and other marginalized residents. Dr. Kathy Oliver has been executive director of Outside In since 1983, and in 1989, she introduced one of the country’s first needle exchange programs. She explains that the idea to provide tattoo removal came from the local chapter of American Psychiatric Association.
“They saw a clear link between tattoo removal and mental health, which I found fascinating,” Dr. Oliver says. “Tattoo removal seemed like a good fit with what we’re doing.”
The reasons for having a tattoo removed are as myriad as the reasons for getting the tattoo, and Project Erase doesn’t ask people to disclose their stories to qualify for removal. But, as Dr. Oliver relates, many clients are so thrilled to get rid of these tattoos, they can’t help but express their excitement and gratitude.
‘THEY SAW A CLEAR LINK BETWEEN TATTOO REMOVAL AND MENTAL HEALTH, WHICH I FOUND FASCINATING,’ DR. OLIVER SAYS.
“I remember one man who said, ‘I have kids, and I was so ashamed for them to see I had swastikas,’” Dr. Oliver says. “‘And you took them off. Thank you, thank you.’”
From its current location on Portland’s West Burnside Street, Project Erase admits hundreds of clients each year. Since each tattoo can take up to a dozen treatments to remove, the clinic might receive thousands of visits in a year. The personnel of approximately forty medical providers who administer the laser treatments are all volunteers, freely offering their time and expertise when not occupied by their professional obligations. One of these volunteers is Dr. Lindsay Segal, an internal medicine specialist at Providence Hospital. Dr. Segal has been volunteering at Project Erase for fifteen years, since the beginning of the program. In her time with Project Erase, she has seen all kinds of tattoos, and she’s heard all kinds of harrowing stories from the people who want them gone. Whether a former gang member who has left the gang or a woman who had been branded by a pimp, Dr. Segal has seen and removed them all. The people who come visit the clinic come from a wide range of ethnic and social backgrounds, and they come in all ages.
“The youngest person I’ve worked on was this boy, about twelve or thirteen,” Dr. Segal says. “He couldn’t go to school until he got these three dots off the corner of his eye, because that would incite gang tendencies or problems at his school.”
Another man, who was well into his thirties, confessed to Dr. Segal that removing his tattoos was the best thing that had ever happened to him.
THE INK GRADUALLY FADES FROM ITS ORIGINAL HUE TO A GRAY, ASHEN COLOR OR A LIGHT-BLUE BLOT, LEAVING ONLY A GHOST OF THE FORMER TATTOO.
Unlike many other forms of treatment, tattoo removal can bring clear and tangible results. Those who come to Project Erase have already made the decision to transform their lives towards rehabilitation. By removing the visible proof of their former selves, the physician gets to witness the transformation along with the client.
“We’re going through this process with them,” Dr. Segal says. “We’re getting to see the results together, and they’re so excited, because now they’re in school, or they’re working to get a job.”
Dr. Segal recalls one man who underwent multiple sessions to remove his facial tattoos. “It was so dramatic because when you first looked at him, you only saw his tattoos,” she says. “But when you start taking them off, you start to see his eyes and how beautiful they are. He would go and look in the mirror, and after a few [sessions] he said, ‘Well, I have to go and get a new driver’s license.’”
Tattoo removal is a highly specialized procedure in which the physician uses a laser to break apart the ink into infinitesimal pieces that are then carried away to other parts of the body. It is a painful process and can sometimes cause hypo- and hyperpigmentation and scarring, but Dr. Segal explains that many people would rather risk having a scar or a slight change in skin color than keep the tattoo that was once in its place.
Removing a tattoo requires several laser sessions. The ink gradually fades from its original hue to a gray, ashen color or a light-blue blot, leaving only a ghost of the former tattoo. As several weeks are needed to heal between each session, some people choose to remove different tattoos at different times, alternating with each visit.
Jeremy Morris has been visiting Project Erase since February 2014, removing tattoos from his chest, neck, and hands. He didn’t get his first tattoo until he was twenty years old, but, like Alonzo, many of his later tattoos he got while incarcerated.
“At that time in my life, I glorified crime,” he says. “I was caught up in it. I wanted to be a part of that violence because that’s where my head was at.”
An Oregon native, Morris was arrested in 1995 and charged with second-degree burglary. He was first sent to Wyoming State Penitentiary then transferred to Crowley County Correctional Facility in Olney Springs, Colorado.
“When I first went in, I didn’t think it was my fault I was in prison,” he says. “I’d thought it was because the judge was crooked, the cops were crooked, the prosecutor had it out for me. Three years into my sentence, I realized, “Wait a second. Nobody ever put a gun to my head and forced me to commit crimes.” It was like this paradigm shift. No longer was someone else to blame. That was a pivotal turning point.”
Morris was released after serving nine years. He was thirty-four years old and ready to turn his life around, though his tattoos remained a visible reminder of the lifestyle he was trying to leave behind. He began looking into tattoo removal services but found that most of the clinics were much too expensive. After an online search, he discovered Project Erase and set up an appointment. He began with the most visible tattoos, first removing a flaming skull from his hand followed by neck tattoos of flames and the bat-winged logo of the metal band Dark Angel. On his chest, he’d gotten what he describes as “Satanic artwork,” including a pentagram dripping with blood and the logo of another metal band, Morbid Angel. While he has chosen to keep some of his less visible and less offensive tattoos, many of them—especially the ones he got while incarcerated—had been reminders of the life he gave up, and he is ashamed now, even reluctant, to talk about them. After multiple sessions, the tattoos on his neck look more like a bruise than wings. The tattoo on the top of his hand looks more like a mild case of varicose veins than a flaming skull. In neither case would they be the first thing a prospective employer, or a stranger on the street—or even a family member—would notice.
I REALIZED, ‘WAIT A SECOND. NOBODY EVER PUT A GUN TO MY HEAD AND FORCED ME TO COMMIT CRIMES.’ IT WAS LIKE THIS PARADIGM SHIFT. NO LONGER WAS SOMEONE ELSE TO BLAME.
“About a year ago, I was sitting on the couch with my brother,” he says. “And he looked down at my hand and was like, ‘Didn’t you used to have a tattoo there?’”
Now, at age forty, Morris has been practicing meditation and learning about Eastern philosophies. He also serves on the client advisory board for Outside In.
“Part of doing this, for me, it’s not to undo the past, but to give back,” he says about volunteering for the nonprofit organization. “I wanted to do something right rather than just take from the world or take from the community. I wanted to be an asset to the community.”
BUT ONCE THE TATTOO BEGINS TO FADE, THE HISTORY BEGINS TO FADE WITH IT.
Even before his first treatment, Morris had renounced his former fixation on violence and crime. Removing the tattoos is only the final step in his long process of healing and recovery.
“The psychological shift had already taken place, and these are just the remnants,” he says. “It’s just a formality, cleaning up the remnants. The real change, obviously, is in the mind.”
Madeline Adee, tattoo removal program coordinator, has seen a wide range of people come through the door of Project Erase, many of them having driven long hours to make their appointment. Project Erase is unique among tattoo removal clinics, she explains, because their program doesn’t discriminate against an individual’s decision for removing their tattoo.
“There aren’t a lot of programs like ours out there,” she says. “As far as I know we are the only low cost tattoo removal program in the western United States that operates on a regular basis, and will accept anyone below a certain income—not just people with gang tattoos, for example. So we see a lot of different tattoos that are important for people to get removed. We definitely have patients with gang and prison tattoos, but also tattoos that are related to past domestic violence or substance abuse, tattoos that are a barrier to employment, and more. I’ve had people cry on the phone when I call them to tell them they are approved for our tattoo removal program because they couldn’t afford it anywhere else and thought they’d never be able to have them removed.”
For many who find their way to Project Erase, the first appointment is often the most difficult to make. Though some may be excited to remove their tattoos, it can also be an acknowledgment of a painful past. But once the tattoo begins to fade, the history begins to fade with it. The person who enters the clinic for the first time is not the same person who emerges later on.
Jorge Alonzo admits he was scared when he decided to pursue a straight life, with all the pressures and responsibilities that that brings.
“I’ve fought dudes that are six feet tall,” he says. “I’ve gotten my ass beat by scary dudes—tattoos on the face, swole dudes. I can tell you this for a fact, what scared me most was coming out into the world, paying taxes, getting a job, being a family man. That scared me so much, knowing that I could try that and fail so quick. That was the biggest fear.”
THE TATTOOS HE HAS REMOVED ATTESTS TO THE VIOLENCE HE HAS OVERCOME.
Alonzo is now twenty-five years old, a loving husband, and father of two. He has been married since 2014 and has a steady job, working at a metal manufacturing plant. He still lives near the same park where he’d committed his assault, but now he passes by with his wife and kids on their way to the grocery store or the coffee shop. Though he still has more to remove, none of his tattoos are immediately visible, and looking at him is the same as looking at any other husband or father. The tattoos he has removed attests to the violence he has overcome. He has been offered a blank canvas, on which to compose the rest of his life.