Tattoo removal service offers help in Walla Walla area

Dr. Robert Betz uses a laser to remove tattoos from a former gang member’s hand.

Dr. Robert Betz uses a laser to remove tattoos from a former gang member’s hand. Photo by Greg Lehman.

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FYI

For more information about INK OUT and to apply for tattoo removal, visit the Health Center at Lincoln, 534 S. Third Ave., Suite 16, in Walla Walla or call 525-0704.

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For a deeper look at the INK OUT program, read more of Jessica's story here, or take a look into the lives of two former gang members who benefitted from the program here.

WALLA WALLA — Theology major Jessica Suitsev has noticed the looks she gets — how people focus on her many tattoos, then edge away.

Years after it was inked onto her calf, the large image of a skull causes the 27-year-old the most problems, especially when she’s practice-preaching.

“... (T)he elderly, they just stare at it,” she said. “I definitely feel the skull being a stumbling block for other people and they don’t hear the words I am saying.”

The Walla Walla University student said she understands how anti-social symbols of her youth can color how others view her.

“A lot of people don’t believe I go to church or that I am studying theology,” Suitsev said. “People think I am living two lifestyles. They don’t know one is the old life and this is my new life.”

Soon, her skin will reflect who she is now.

Suitsev is taking advantage of a new tattoo removal project in Walla Walla called INK OUT, designed so that past mistakes don’t put a black mark on people’s future.

The service will be available to a variety of users: people like Suitsev whose tattoos put up social barriers, recovering drug users who advertised a way of life on their skin, and gang members who have bid those bonds goodbye.

Getting a tattoo is almost always the first step a new gang recruit takes, said Detective Saul Reyna with Walla Walla Police Department’s Special Teams Unit.

That means being marked with the name of his or her gang, often with crude materials in amateur fashion, Reyna said. “It is great pride to wear that on their skin. That gang name is very prominent.”

Regret, if it comes at all, arrives years down the road. Long after letters, numbers and icons have been permanently added to faces, necks, forearms and even heads, to be exposed through hair shaving, Reyna said.

When the tattoo bearer is ready to leave signs of such a lifestyle behind, it takes the same level of commitment, especially if the tattoo is seen as the property of the gang, he added. “Getting those removed, it’s a fresh start.”

A community effort

So if signs of anti-social or drug-related behavior can be erased, can the behavior go away, too?

The answer appears to be “yes,” in the view of a number of community leaders.

The Walla Walla Valley has 300 to 500 youths associated with light to heavy involvement in the gang lifestyle, mostly operating in two groups that emulate gangs in Southern California, Reyna said.

“Plus a handful of others that are homegrown that originated within the Walla Walla Valley,” he added. “Those come and go.”

In 2011, Walla Walla’s Community Council investigated reducing local gang populations. By listening to regional gang experts, council participants came up with ideas to implement, said Jim Sporleder, Lincoln High School principal and a council member.

One was help people get rid of their tattoos if they were ready to move on.

“Your tattoo labels you,” Sporleder said. “Also, it really impacts employment.”

The committee members turned to Sergio Hernandez, a consultant to Walla Walla Public School District, for help. Hernandez, Sporleder said, has a nose for grant money and expertise in navigating the application process.

With requests to the Donald and Virginia Sherwood Trust and Blue Mountain Community Foundations, the $70,000 needed for a Quanta-Q Plus-C tattoo-removing laser machine was fully funded. Thus INK OUT was launched.

Hernandez advised committee members there needed to be protocol in place for those wanting laser treatments. He and his team laid out a blueprint — while the tattoo-removal service is free for eligible youths under 21 years old, participation requires an intense application process, school enrollment or steady employment, 25 community-service hours and working with a mentor during the entire removal process.

INK OUT participants over age 21 must also pay a portion of the cost, Hernandez said.

For the average citizen, costs begin with an initial consultation fee of $35, then $50 to laser away the first business-card-sized patch of ink. Prices drop to $35 for another same-sized patch, and $25 for each 6-square inch after.

Those dollars not only help fund laser maintenance, but money from INK OUT participants goes back into a fund to help people move to the next phase of reclaiming their lives, Hernandez said. Perhaps it is relocating a former gang member, buying shoes for someone’s job interview or helping with college tuition.

A laser focus on helping

The laser fills part of an office at Walla Walla General Hospital, where Dr. Robert Betz volunteers his time to remove tattoos.

It may seem like a departure from his usual brand of medicine — obstetrics and gynecology — but he’s been using lasers in other ways for 20 years.

“So when this came up as a community service, I had the interest and was at a time in my life where I can do something different,” he said.

He continues to treat women and deliver babies, but his heart has been headed this way for some time.

“I’ve been reading about gangs in the paper, and I have served the Hispanic community for many years,” Betz said. “I speak Spanish and I worked at Family Medical Center, where young women would come in with gang markings that were obviously amateur in nature. That probably inhibits their ability to move on in life. And some markings are a form of abuse, they are marked as someone’s property.”

Getting rid of tattoos is one step, but early education needs to be first on the list, he added.

“Removing the marking is actually a fairly small piece,” Betz said. “Kids get into these poor situation in middle school. Many get pregnant at 14, 15 or 16 and get locked in.”

Betz has been on his own learning curve as he practices with the laser to control power for different skin tones. He did much of his initial exploration on ink-embedded paper, watching the machine sometimes blow the pigment right through the surface, he said with a grin.

The process works as an intense beam of light pulses through the top layers of skin, breaking ink particles into smaller parts. Those are then absorbed into and eliminated from the body. Side affects are usually minimal and may include temporary blistering and ashy skin appearance for a few days.

In a recent session, Betz went to work on a young man sporting an initial on his hand. The marking had been done years before, in Old English block font common in gang tattoos. A triad of faded black dots was also targeted.

As Betz applied the triple-tipped laser, the sound of popping filled the room — one dot literally disappeared under a flash of heat and light. The patient looked up at Betz in awe.

Most tattoo removals will demand eight to 12 sessions, spaced four to six weeks apart, depending on how sophisticated the ink and application are, Betz said. The entire process can take up to a year and deeply colored pigment may never be fully erased.

Hernandez said he is not aware of another program like INK OUT in Washington state, and said the local cooperation and funding was a big part of making it happen.

“I tell you, the stars aligned,” Hernandez said. “It’s unreal how it all came together.”

Said Sporleder: “It’s taken a lot of collaboration and it’s going to stay. This is not something that is here and then flies away.”

Suitsev is looking forward to her next session, which comes courtesy of being a project test subject. The once crisp outlines of her tattoos are blurring, she said.

“I always joked as a rich pastor, I’ll have them removed,” Suitsev said. “But pastors are never really rich.”

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

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