At 14 years old, Samuel Lazalde got his first gang-related tattoo—three dots on his arm. Growing up in Pacoima in the San Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles, this was a “rite of passage” in his family. It was the first of many tattoos he would get as he became involved in gangs and criminal activity before he ended up incarcerated as a juvenile and then as an adult.
It wasn’t until 2009, when Lazalde was shot in the face that he began to envision making changes for a better life. Now, At 30 years old, Lazalde now has two college degrees and works in gang-intervention for the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office. He credits his fresh start to the help he received as part of a free tattoo removal program at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the San Fernando Valley.
Lazalde says he felt “a release” and “an escape” after he went under the laser. “I felt I was beginning another chapter in my life,” he recalls.
The tattoo removal program was started in 1998 by the late Sister June Wilkerson as part of her ministry work to address gang violence in the region. The program provides free tattoo removal treatment for residents who want to remove visible gang-related or anti-social tattoos. In exchange, those who have their tattoos removed must perform community service or attend professional/personal development courses.
Through a total community health investment of $211,889, Providence was able to assist more than 124 people in 2018, by providing 448 tattoo removal session. The tattoo removal program is a direct response to a continued active gang activity in the San Fernando Valley.
Providence Health & Services, Los Angeles County conducted a community health needs assessment in 2016, which identified mental health, access to services and social determinants of health, such as social isolation and unemployment, as areas of great need in this region.
Tattoos often prevent people from finding good jobs or make it difficult for them to make positive life changes. As the late Sister June was once quoted as saying, “Nothing stops a bullet better than a job … but also, nothing stops a job better than a tattoo.”
“A lot of the clients that we have want to change. These are people who want to erase their past. For them to start that process, they need to remove their tattoos,” says Karina Cisneros, Providence tattoo removal coordinator.
The program staff has also been trained to serve as gang intervention specialists. They work in partnership with community-based organizations, local law enforcement, and the parole department to address gang violence in the community.
“It’s much more painful to get a tattoo out than putting it in,” says Dr. Leah Heap, a volunteer physician who donates her time at the clinic. But “I love to do the procedures and help people,” she says. “For the people who come here, they get their life back.”
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