A. Garcia / SFVS

Samuel Lazalde of Pacoima had gang tattoos removed at the clinic. Others have been covered up with new art work.

“Dina” is long gone. And Matthew Garcia wants the tattoo on his forearm bearing her name to be gone, too.

After several sessions at the Providence Tattoo Removal Clinic, it’s barely visible.

Juan Riebling is also tired of looking at the peacock (don’t ask) on his leg and the “Outlaw” near his elbow. He’s leaving the “money bag” under that word, for now.

“(The tattoos) look pretty ugly. I regret putting them on,” said Riebling, 56, who has come to the North Hollywood clinic from Eagle Rock to start having them removed.

It’s 8 a.m. on a Saturday, and the clinic is packed. Visible tattoos of faces, names, gang monikers and numbers are everywhere. Many of the patients are former gang members or have been in trouble with the law. Some were referred here by probation officers, others by friends.

They’re trying to leave their former worlds behind. But it’s difficult when “tear drops” and/or “three dots” are visible on arms, legs, the neck, head or face.

Those tattoos also become a risk if a former rival sees them, or if the wearer moves to an area where his former gang is not welcomed.

“The idea is to get them out of the gang and for that they need to get busy, out of that mindset,” said Karina Cisneros, Providence Tattoo Removal Coordinator.

“A lot of the clients that we have want to change. People who want to erase their past. In order for them to start that process, they need to remove their tattoos.”

There are others who want to erase the names of former girlfriends or wives  — one of the most common issues for men. Women come to the clinic to remove “Tramp stamps” — tattoos on their lower back — that may have looked sexy in another time, but now embarrass them or their families.

“What sounded like a good idea bites you in the butt [literally],” Cisneros said.

The clinic was started by a nun, Sister June Wilkerson, in 1982. The service can be free. In exchange for the laser removal sessions, clients must perform community service or attend classes. It takes forty-eight hours of community service to receive three treatments. If more treatment is needed, more community service is required.

For those who would rather pay, it can cost $60 for a session to remove the ink from an area the size of a credit card. That’s still cheap. Laser removal at other clinics can cost as much as $175 per session for an area the size of a stamp, Cisneros said.

Does it hurt?

The answer is a definite YES.

“It’s much more painful to get a tattoo out than putting it in,” says Dr. Leah Heap, one of the volunteer physicians who donate their time at the clinic. But “I love to do the procedures and help people,” she said. “For the people who come here, they get their life back.”

She said the laser literally burns your skin.

“It smells like chicharrones,” Cisneros adds jokingly, also comparing the procedure to “having drops of hot oil hit you constantly.”

Samuel Lazalde describes the pain differently.

“It’s like a rubber band hitting you repeatedly,” he said.

Lazalde, 29, from Pacoima, said he was once involved in gangs and ended up being incarcerated while a juvenile, and also as an adult. He was 14 when he got his first tattoo. A self-described tattoo fan, Lazalde added several others.

But he’s changed his life. Lazalde currently works for the City of Los Angeles, running Summer Night Light programs in three parks.

He said he’s had several gang tattoos removed enough and was able to cover them with “better” art. He’s got “sleeves” on his arms now, but they are artistic.

Lazalde admits he second-guessed himself when he first went under the laser, but felt “a release,” and “an escape” afterward.

“I felt I was beginning another chapter in my life,” he said.

The Treatment

Before undergoing the removal process —  which last no more than five minutes at a time — a nurse applies a “numbing cream” in the area to be treated. The client’s vital signs are also checked.

After waiting between 20 to 30 minutes for the cream to take effect, patients then go into one of the treatment rooms, and Heap begins removing the old tattoo.

The doctor explains that people with darker skin tend to have more difficulties eliminating tattoos. Black, blue and green ink comes out easier than yellow and red dyes.

Joaquin Flores, 32, has received 16 treatments so far, and said he notices a difference in how people react to him.

“As soon as I began, more people started talking to me. All that ‘stereotype,’ that negativity was gone,” said the Lancaster resident, who’s having “horns” tattoos removed from his head (they’re almost gone now) and lettering around his neck.

Flores, who works as an armed security guard, wants to join the Army. But the military doesn’t allow those type of tattoos.

“It stings,” he said of the laser treatment, “but it’s worth it.”

Do former wearers recommend getting a tattoo?

Most clients say no. Others say it’s up to each individual to make their own choices.

Cisneros — who’s seen all kinds of tattoos at the clinic — stresses that if you’re going to get one, “make sure they open the needle in front of you and they use fresh ink” to avoid infections.

“Don’t put the names of your boyfriend/girlfriend,” she said, because nothing guarantees that you’re going to stay with that person. And think about where you’re going to put the tattoo.

A final bit of advice from Dr. Heap.

“One drunk moment and you’re marked for life,” she said.


The Providence Tattoo Removal Clinic is located at 6801 Coldwater Canyon, Suite 1A, in North Hollywood. For more information, call (818) 847-3860.