The Illustrated Man has nothing on Stephon, an 18-year-old from Philadelphia whose arms and torso are covered with 32 tattoos. Many of them are gang-related, including the nine skulls that represent friends who have been killed in “shoot-outs” or died from drug overdoses.
A large number “5” covers the top of one hand, a “4” the other. Together they stand for 54th Street, Stephon’s neighborhood when he’s home. But at the moment he resides in Western PA Child Care, Mid-Atlantic Youth Services, a secure juvenile treatment facility in Emlenton, Clarion County.
Although charges from five cases are pending against him — for shooting, drugs, robbery, home invasion and grand theft auto — Stephon says the program has transformed him.
“It got me to think before I act,” he says. “I used to play with guns, and I was stealing cars like it was nothing. But I want to make a change in my life. I’ve got a son, and I want to be a father figure to him, you know, get a job.”
The tattooed flames leaping up his arms and a scenic view of the housing project where he grew up might deter some employers from hiring Stephon. That’s why he’s sitting nervously in a chair at the East Side Laser Center in Shadyside, waiting for owner Bridget Miller to begin the laser treatment that will eventually erase all traces of the ink.
Usually, patients who come to the upscale center are affluent professionals seeking cosmetic procedures, sometimes as an alternative to going under the knife — laser skin resurfacing for wrinkles and scars, hair removal, treatment for spider veins, age spots, broken capillaries, rosacea and, yes, tattoo removal. But generally not on such a grand scale.
Every week or so, a van arrives with an average of four youths who rotate among the 20 offenders Ms. Miller now treats. Her involvement began with a phone call from caseworker Kim Kaufman, who had witnessed the interaction between members of opposing gangs within the detention facility. A young woman from Baltimore with gang tattoos on her face passed a young man from Philadelphia who had recently had a relative killed by the local branch of the woman’s gang.
The young man’s explosive reaction made Ms. Kaufman realize the young woman would never be safe or very employable with such a stigma. She Googled tattoo removal, saw East Side Laser Center and asked Ms. Miller if she could do it — for free.
She found the right person on her first try. Ms. Miller had spent three years in Haiti working as director of external affairs at Hopital Albert Schweitzer before returning to Pittsburgh and opening the laser center. She agreed immediately, even though that meant a commitment of 12 to 20 treatments for each tattoo.
“After I left Hopital Albert Schweitzer I wanted to find a niche where I could feel I was giving back to society, doing something helpful,” says Ms. Miller. “It’s really selfish — I do this because it makes me feel really good. If a kid can’t get a job at McDonald’s because he has a tattoo on his face or somewhere where it can be seen, they’re never going to get out of where they came from.”
The first patient came to the center last spring, and as word spread within the facility, other kids stepped forward to request tattoo removal. Ms. Miller treats them all pro bono. For regular clients, her prices begin at $75 for a one-inch area.
“I cannot say enough about her kindness, generosity, giving heart and her professionalism,” Ms. Kaufman says about Ms. Miller. “She never crosses the line. She always explains the procedures and is adamant that they get the proper aftercare, from special creams to the ice they put on during the drive down and the way home.”
The supervisors at Western PA Child Care determine who is sincere about undergoing the treatment, which is both painful (Ms. Miller likens it to being splashed with hot bacon grease) and ongoing.
“Those tattoos mean something to those kids,” says Ms. Kaufman. “When you see a teardrop on a kid’s face, it may be a friend lost or somebody they’ve shot and killed. A lot of them have emotional ties and that’s a big part of the decision to get rid of them.”
Ms. Miller used her connections to arrange free follow-up in other cities for the kids who are released before their treatment is complete. But not all laser centers do tattoo removal, which requires expensive equipment. Ms. Miller uses a special Palomar Q-Yag 5 dual laser, which attacks tattoos on two levels — the deeper blacks and the more shallow colors.
“The laser light is heat, so it bypasses the skin and targets the tattoo ink,” explains Ms. Miller. “It turns that area into heat, which starts to shatter the dye. It breaks down into minuscule pieces for up to two months after the session, and when the pieces get broken down small enough they’re flushed out of the body through the lymphatic system. The better the artists, the better the tattoo because they use a thicker dye, and they put it deeper, which makes it harder to remove.”
As Ms. Miller finishes the treatment, each offender shakes her hand and politely thanks her. “They’re really just kids, immature. I love working with them. It makes you realize they’re products of their environments. Would they be in gangs if they had a better education or a better life?”
Despite the pain, many of the teens say they would get tattoos again, although perhaps in more discreet locations. They have learned that much, and much more through the counseling, they receive during their incarceration.
“The sad thing is when they’re here they buy into it, but they have to go right back into the inner city, the circumstances they left,” says Ms. Kaufman. “People look at these kids as criminals, and they are or they wouldn’t be here. But they are the strongest people I’ve ever met if you know what they’ve been through.”
East Side Laser Center: 412-327-6630; www.eastsidelasercenter.com.