|Everyone has done something during their life they wish they could change. “Shoud’a, could’a, would’a” is a game we all play at one time or another. Sometimes it’s just a matter of wishing you hadn’t eaten that gooey hot fudge sundae, but some deeds have much more far-reaching consequences…and some can actually brand you for life.
While there is no way to get an accurate count, by some estimates about 18 million people acquire a tattoo each year. It’s a good guess that at least 80 percent of them subsequently wish they hadn’t done it.
In cases where the tattoo was part of an initiation ritual or gang identification, the wearable “art” can make a strong, negative statement about the owner that can make it tough for them to take their place in normal society. As a former gang member complains, “Everyone knows that most businesses won’t hire a person with a visible tattoo — especially if it looks anything like a gang insignia. Well, maybe you can get a job where the customers won’t see you. But a questionable tattoo on the back of your hand, or cheek, or arm sure makes it hard to get a good job with a future — whether or not your tattoo is gang-related.”
Houston’s Parks and Recreation Department, in association with the Harris County Medical Society, has come up with a program created to help give kids with tattoos a chance to have them removed. The D-TAG Operation Gang Together program was designed to “help individuals re-enter standard society by expelling tattoos that would distinguish them as taking part in or supporting the enemy of social conduct.” Kathy Cochran, director of the two-year-old program, credits the partnership with the Harris County Medical Society (HCMS) as being the key to this effort’s success.
“A lot of cities have tried programs like this one,” Cochran explained, “Most of them enjoyed a brief period of success, but in the long run had to be abandoned or downsized. Our D-TAG effort relies on access to expensive, sophisticated, state-of-the-art laser equipment and the trained technicians and physicians to use it. There won’t be any shortage of kids wanting their tattoos removed after you announce a program like this. The problem for many cities is that, after a while, it’s hard to find doctors willing to volunteer their time month after month to complete the ongoing removal process. Fortunately, we have the dedicated support and participation by the HCMS and its member physicians that helps sustain our D-TAG program.”
Cochran explains that the program exchanges a commitment for community service for free tattoo removal. Removal candidates, who must be 19 years old or younger, must agree to follow the program guidelines in order to participate. If the candidate is a juvenile (17 and younger), a parent or guardian must complete a permission form. All tattoos noticeable in typical road dress are qualified for treatment and the member must consent to have every single unmistakable tattoo evacuated. In the event that a member procures another tattoo while taking an interest in the Tattoo Removal Program, they’re out.
Once the enrollment process is complete, participants attend an orientation program and watch a video that demonstrates how tattoos are removed with the laser technique. The teens must perform six hours of volunteer work at a City of Houston park for each month they receive the laser removal treatments — which can take anywhere from a few months to a few years, depending upon the size, colors, and depth of the “art.”
Michael V. Kelly, II, M.D., a Houston plastic surgeon who volunteers a significant amount of his time to the D-TAG program and serves as HCMS Physician Coordinator for the effort, says he does it because “everyone makes mistakes and these youngsters should not have to wear theirs for the rest of their lives.”
“We have the laser technology and training to be able to make a difference in these youngsters’ future, and they really deserve our help,” Dr. Kelly said. “I do a lot of tattoo removal in my practice, too, and I find all these patients have the same wish — ‘just get it off!’ We had an e-mail the other day from someone who realized their mistake immediately, and wanted to know how soon a brand new tattoo could be taken off.”
Houston’s D-TAG program has already helped 200+ now “tattoo-art free” teens and is set up to handle about 50 to 55 youth each month.