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Unmarked For Life

un-tatooing
Light Saber: Sanae Ponce, 23, goes under the laser to have Norteño gang tattoos removed from her forehead and fingers. Both patient and doctor wear goggles to protect their eyesight from the intense light.

Photo by Kirk Schroeder



San Jose is spending millions to lead young people out of the gang life. A small but symbolic part of this effort is the Clean Slate program, which removes gang tattoos for free. But in the two years since Clean Slate began, the city has learned gang affiliations are more than skin deep

By Michael Learmonth

TERESA AZEVEDO gasps and twists in pain as the doctor guides the pulsing laser down the outside of her lower leg and ankle. The laser flashes 10 times a second, making a snapping sound as light slams into flesh. It's an intense burning feeling, she says. Like being splattered with bacon grease.

The doctor tells her the tattoos will hurt much more coming off than they did going on. This, she believes. But, in truth, she can't quite remember the pain of the tattoos going on.

"I must have been so inebriated," says the 20-year-old, thinking back. "Back in [those] days, I was young and I thought tattoos were cool. Now I look down and it makes me feel ugly. I can't wear shorts or nice things because people look at me. They do judge me like that."

Like many things that began happening to Azevedo when she joined a gang at the age of 12, the tattoo memories are obscured in a hazy blur of alcohol, heroin, crank, coke, PCP, pot, burglaries and incarcerations. Her first tattoo was put on at the age of 13. The last one, an inscription of the name of her second child, Leah, came at the age of 19.

At 20, Azevedo says this is the year she leaves behind her time as a Norteño to go back to school, get a job and become a mother. After her treatment she plans to take her kids to spend the sunny afternoon in the park. "I must have thought having a baby was like having a doll," she says, pushing her thick black hair away from pretty dark eyes. "It's not that simple."

AZEVEDO IS ENROLLED in the Clean Slate program, a part of the city of San Jose's gang diversion and intervention effort, which began in 1994 just removing gang tattoos but has since evolved to offer more comprehensive counseling and referrals to jobs and educational opportunities. Since then, the city has spent $146,000 on the project, purchasing the laser and paying a staffer. Valley Medical Center donates the space and the doctors donate their time. Spending roughly $400 per patient, the program has helped rid 350 young people of the physical markings of a gang life left behind.

In return for the treatments, which would cost anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000 if they weren't donated, program participants are expected to complete 50 to 100 hours of community service, enroll in school or a job program, and attend weekly counseling sessions. Patients complete their community service stints at community organizations like local churches, Big Brothers/Big Sisters and the Red Cross.

Azevedo has tattoos on both ankles: a flower on one, and on the other a tattoo with Chinese characters that mean "trust no man." Her son Anthony's name is tattooed on her back. On her fingers were the characteristic markings of the Norteños gang: a dot on each of four fingers between the knuckle and first joint.

She is the second patient to see Dr. Jerry Manoukian that day, and the second female. The first, Sanae Ponce, 23, also was having Norteños markings removed, as well as a tiny tattoo on her forehead near where she parts her long curly black hair.

"The high priority is getting any tattoo that is out in the open," explains Manoukian, who grew up in Los Altos and practices medicine in Mountain View.

To completely remove a tattoo can take anywhere from two to five or six treatments. First, the tattoo is covered with a clear, gelatinous substance called Second Skin. Without this, Manoukian says, the skin would literally "splatter up," hitting the lens of the laser. The intense light shatters the pigment that the tattoo artist's needle leaves beneath the skin, breaking it up into very fine pieces, allowing it to be absorbed by the body. The number of treatments required to remove a tattoo depends completely on the body's ability to absorb the broken-down pigments. Typically, red and black inks are the easiest to remove. Yellow and green are more difficult.

Manoukian, 40, admits the gang life is as far from his understanding as Los Altos is from Rocksprings. "I don't understand the gang scene other than I was once a teenager," he says.

As he waits for his next patient, the gangly, soft-spoken doctor reflects on his decision to become a Clean Slate volunteer. At first, he says sheepishly, he really wanted to learn to use the $79,000 Medlite laser. Then, as he came to know the patients, he became emotionally involved.

"It's neat these kids are making a decision about themselves," he says, as his eyes fill slightly with tears. "From caterpillars to butterflies. I'm getting choked up here ... that someone is able to make that decision ... and just turn directions. How can you describe that? It's more than a change of course; it's a transformation."

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Courts attempt to mark where individual rights
end and societal rights begin.

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THE MAYOR'S gang czar, Dick De La Rosa, is a gentle bear of a man who wears pinstripes. He begins our talk by explaining the trick to tearing in half one of the many phone books in the conference room, a feat his arthritic joints have kept him from showing off for quite some time. (The trick is to buckle the pages of the phone book, pushing the pages into a line of tension, so the tearing takes place page by page.) The free tattoo removal, he says, represents the "pot of gold" that the gang-troubled city can offer to those willing to take the steps necessary to change their lives. Once they're out of the gang, job training and educations can help provide them with new opportunities.

"The ability to dream, I don't think existed," De La Rosa says. "They thought life was the survival of the fittest."

Tattoo removal opens doors to jobs in the mainstream working world, as well as to what De La Rosa describes as a deeper redemption: "the ability to believe that no one knows I was in a gang before."

When Clean Slate began in the summer of 1994, it was simply an assembly line, removing hundreds of tattoos and offering the service to anyone who asked. Soon it became clear that removing the tattoos was literally scraping the surface of the problem.

"A lot of individuals were coming in saying 'I just got released,' or 'I need to find a job,' or 'I've got an alcohol problem,' " says program director Esther Garcia Mota, who worked to make Clean Slate more comprehensive. Now free tattoo removal is the carrot to lure gang members into jobs and education and away from their former lives. The Clean Slate model, says Mota, is now being replicated in Oakland, Alameda, San Mateo and Hayward. Recently, she has fielded curious phone calls from as far away as Chicago and Houston.

In 1991, when Mayor Susan Hammer took office, the city admitted it had a gang problem, formed the Gang Task Force and began to spend money. This year, the mayor committed to pouring $2 million into San Jose B.E.S.T. (Bringing Everyone's Strengths Together), an umbrella organization that picks and funds gang-prevention projects.

De La Rosa was hired in 1992 to head up the mayor's gang efforts. He explains the myriad carrots and sticks the city employs to offer young people "a clear path out of gangs." The newest stick, championed by City Attorney Joan Gallo and validated by the State Supreme Court two weeks ago, has proven the most controversial (see related story on page 10). It uses civil injunctions to stop identified gang members from engaging in certain behavior--like talking to other gang members--that would otherwise be legal.

VIDAL SANTELLANO, 22, took De La Rosa's path out of a gang called Varrio Norte Pride. Now he works for the city as an outreach counselor to gang members. Meeting Santellano, it is hard to imagine him as a hardened criminal, in and out of jail, participating in beatings, drug dealing and extortion. He has a short, muscular physique, black hair cut to about a half-inch, thick eyebrows and a warm, jovial smile.

"I wanted to be this hard-core gangster," he says of his gang-banging days, "but I had a conscience. When we jumped someone and beat him down, I would feel bad. But I couldn't show it in front of the homeboys, you know."

Clean Slate helped Santellano get rid of gang tattoos on his fingers, hands and ear. He gave up his plans to commemorate the gangland murders of his cousin and best friend by having their tombstones tattooed on his body.

Santellano identifies the top three things gang members ask for when they come to him for help getting out: jobs, tattoo removal and education. But the importance of tattoo removal, he says, is more than just as an aid to assimilating into society. Tattoos can be deadly.

"Tattoos put myself and my kids in danger," says Santellano, who has four children, born when he was 15, 17, 18 and 19. He has sole custody of the first three because the mother is still in the gang. He is raising them with his fiancee, with whom he has a fourth child.

The four dots on the fingers of most San Jose Latino gang members signify allegiance to the Norteños. The number stands for the 14th letter of the alphabet, "N." Sureños, who are predominantly in Southern California, have three dots that stand for "M," an abbreviation of "Mexican Mafia."

The Norteños are a continuation of the legendary Latino gang "Nuestra Familia," which has its roots in jail inmate organizations from the 1960s. Going to jail as a Norteño, Santellano says, can be bad news. Norteños are outnumbered considerably by Sureños in California jails. Most of the Norteños are English-speaking, he says. Spanish-speaking Mexican immigrants would rarely be accepted into the gang except maybe to be used as runners. Santellano says they are called "Border Brothers."

Like tattoos, Santellano says, colors can also be dangerous. Norteños wear red and Sureños, blue. "Most of these kids with the colors and the tattoos don't even know what they're representing," he says. "I ask them, 'What's your purpose?' and most of them say, 'Respect.' Is respect going to pay your bills, raise your kids? There is no logical answer."

When he was in the gang, Santellano earned his respect on the street "taking care of business." Having left the gang and its markings behind, he says his relationship with the "homeboys" is still respectful. He was not forced to "jump out," the traditional beating or stabbing required to leave most Latino gangs. "My homeboys know I got to provide for my kids. They respect that. I don't forget where I came from. But now I know what I want out of my life."

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From the February 13-19, 1997 issue of Metro

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