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For many young people, tattoo removal goes more than skin deep.
Simon Alison was in 9th grade and struggling with school when he got his first tattoos — two clown faces, one happy one sad, on the tops of his hands. They matched his philosophy on life at the time: “laugh now, cry later.” Thinking back on those days, Alison, now 21, runs his fingers over the dark ink lines and shakes his head. “I was a different person back then,” he says. “Life moves on.”
Alison is one of the participants of Project New Start, a free tattoo removal program launched by the Alameda County Public Health Department in 1994. The cost of laser tattoo removal can be prohibitive: from $196 to $1,445 per person, according to a 2011 program report. New Start participants can receive these services free of charge as long as they are between the ages of 13 and 25, complete 50 hours of community service, are enrolled in school, working or seeking employment, and sign an agreement to not get any additional tattoos.
It was an easy choice for Alison, who wants to join the US Navy but is not eligible as long as he still has tattoos that would be visible while he is wearing a uniform. He has several other tattoos, including a large cross on his the back of his arm, but he is only removing the markings on his hands. “Nobody told me if I got tattoos on my hands or my neck, I wouldn’t be able to get a certain type of job,” he says. “If I had known, I never would have gotten them there.”
Trying to get a job is one of the top reasons participants in the program seek to remove their tattoos. Others say they want to make a major life change, such as leaving a gang to avoid violence. Many past clients (72% of men and 38% of women) say gang pressure was one of the reasons they got tattoos in the first place. This is why the program does not openly advertise the exact times and dates of its clinics. “Even coming here can be a risk for the young people,” said Alice Kaida, a nurse at Highland Hospital who has been volunteering with the program for the last 18 years.
Since the Project New Start began, more than 400 participants have received laser treatment. Complete tattoo removal requires several laser sessions, and it can take up to two years for the ink to fade completely. Alison still has several more treatments to go, but says for him, it’s worth the wait.
“I still plan on going into the Navy in three years,” he says. “This way I have time to get ready mentally and physically.”