Case managers at Second Chance, the Central American Resource Center’s tattoo removal program, expected 23 participants to attend the orientation on Wednesday evening. Only five came, and from the young man in an oversized white shirt and baggy pants slouched on a chair to another who went from checking his cell phone to looking bored, few wanted the second chance. But a judge did.

“We can’t expect people to be gung-ho about removing their tattoos,” Interim Coordinator Metzi Henriquez said, “but just because they’re court-mandated doesn’t mean they don’t really want to do it.”

Anita, a case manager who asked that her full name be withheld, understood their reluctance. Eight years earlier at the age of 14, she too had receive a similar court order.

“I didn’t want to remove my tattoos because I was still involved in the gang,” she said, but added that the experience had been transformative.

“I pretty much grew up here, my case manager was like my family, I knew I was safe here,” she said.

Safety was a word that kept coming up at the center. Because some participants are part of rival gangs, they’re picked up and driven here in what the organization calls a safe passage van. Inside, blue and red—gang colors—cannot be worn.

Others are victims of abuse, often by ex-partners.

“A lot of the time our tattoos mean more than meets the eye, right?” case manager Lizbett Calleros, told the participants who sat quietly.

Tattoos can be barriers, Henriquez explained in a separate interview. She gave the example of a woman whose ex-boyfriend had her get 5150– police code for a mentally ill person–tattooed on the back of her neck.

A constant reminder of her past, the tattoo stopped the woman from moving on. By coming to Second Chance and having it removed, she was able to start over.

Although the removal is free for participants, each treatment costs the organization approximately $985, Calleros said.  Most need at least six treatments. For some participants, removing all of their tattoos has taken more than five years.

The program requires each participant to pay off the cost with 150 hours of community service.  The goal is that doing such work will help break the person’s ties to the gang and build bridges to the community, Henriquez said.

Calleros convinced Adrianna Huertas, a 17-year-old high school senior at the Life Learning Academy on Treasure Island, to come to the center. She has a tattoo of her ex-boyfriend’s name on her arm, and one of his nickname on her ankle.

“Damn, Lizbett helped me hella much,” Huertas said of her case manager, “I know I help myself but it’s because I have people who put me on the right track.”

When asked why she wanted to get rid of the tattoos, her mood changed. I’d rather not go into that, she said quietly. Yet, Huertas said she was hopeful about the future.

“I don’t know if it’s going to be better but I have a feeling,” Huertas said, her smile returning.

Huertas is thinking about going to San Francisco City College’s culinary program next year. Or, she said, she may become a case manager.

“They helped me so I figure I should give back to my community,” she said.

The organization is currently working with 300 people, all of whom are 24 years old or younger. They’re funded by city and state agencies. Private foundations also help with internship stipends.

In the middle of the meeting, a cell phone alarm went off. It belonged to the young man in the oversized shirt. A reminder, Henriquez explained, that he has a curfew and needed to leave.

The nurse then turned to explain to the remaining four participants that topical anesthetic cream can help with the pain. The laser, she explained, explodes the particles of ink under the skin and then the body slowly starts to get rid of the tattoo.

“If I could go back, I wouldn’t have gotten the tattoos,” Anita said. “I don’t regret it because made me a stronger person.”

Lydia Chávez

I’ve been a Mission resident since 1998 and a professor at Berkeley’s J-school until 2019. I got my start in newspapers at the Albuquerque Tribune in the city where I was born and raised. The Tribune...

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