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Starting over, with the help of tattoo removal

Starting over, with the help of tattoo removal For a former gang member, old tattoos can send a message to mainstream society: I am not one of you. They’re an obstacle to employment but also to new lives with family and community members who may be put off by the sinister-looking imagery. Enter Homeboy Industries, a gang intervention organization in Los Angeles that is said to operate the world’s largest gang-tattoo removal operation. 

The charity was started in the late 1980s by Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest who became dismayed by the all too frequent deaths of young people caught up in gang violence in his Boyle Heights parish. Early on, a doctor with a laser machine offered to donate an hour of time here and there for tattoo removal. As word spread, a huge demand was uncovered. “Pretty soon I had a waiting list of 3,000 gang members,” Boyle said. Boyle said the services were part of a holistic approach to gang intervention that included mental health counseling, addiction treatment and job training. 

The goal, he said, is to heal former gang members. “An employed gang member may or may not go back to prison, and an educated one may or may not go back to prison,” Boyle said. “But a healed gang member won’t ever reoffend — ever.” Last week, Alex Carpio, a former member of the Varrio Las Lomas gang in the San Gabriel Valley, came in for his 45th laser treatment to get a tattoo across his abdomen removed. Carpio, 42, said he started gang banging at 13. 

He was in and out of juvenile halls and jails. He was shot multiple times, leaving him blind, and beaten so badly that he walks with a lean. After 20 years, he’d had enough. “I lived in a lie,” Carpio said. “I wanted to kill my worst enemies. But of course I was my worst enemy myself.” Laser tattoo removal is said to feel like a hot rubber band snapping on the skin. Even for a former gangster, the treatments are not to be taken lightly. “Pshh, it is beyond painful,” Carpio said with a laugh. “Yeah and I mean I’ve been through so much pain.”

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