New Tattoo Removal Program helps Inland Empire patients reset, aims to curb violence

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Loma Linda University Health recently launched a tattoo removal program to help people efface visible gang-related or anti-social tattoos. The program is part of an endeavor to curb violence associated with gangs for which the Inland Empire region holds a reputation.

Sigrid Burruss, MD, a trauma surgeon at Loma Linda University Health, says lately she has seen more violently injured patients under her care — especially from gang-affiliated altercations. She says she founded the tattoo removal program with the support of Juan Carlos Belliard, PhD, and the Institute for Community Partnerships, to approach the issue from a specific angle; removing patients’ stigmatizing tattoos could help them de-identify as gang members and avoid remaining the targets of repeated assault.

“Trauma teams at the hospital don’t want to see our trauma patients come back from reinjury,” she says. “In addition to fixing up patients in the hospital, we also want to try to address the reasons why they were injured or harmed to begin with.”

Burruss says tattoos are more than ink on our skin; they have the power to signify identity, ideology, and affiliation. Removing gang-related or anti-social and visible on the face, head, neck, or hands can help people protect themselves and embody the self-image they wish to project to the world.

The tattoo removal program aims to serve those with a history of involvement with gangs, living in poverty, and minority or underrepresented individuals looking to remove tattooed markers of their past to move on, reintegrate back into society, and find employment.

Eligible patients must have completed at least 10 hours of community service through organizations of their choice, homeless shelters, community gardens, or churches. Burruss says the requirement is a way for the program to engage individuals to connect with their community in a meaningful manner.

The program has so far garnered an overwhelming response, Burruss says. Within the program’s first few days of operation, over 100 interested individuals reached out with requests and inquiries. Burruss reports that the demand continues to be solid and steady, testifying to the need it is fulfilling within the community.

Thirty-four-year-old David Loya, who helps people transitioning out of prison obtain jobs, is one of the patients who has expressed gratitude for the program. He says he is removing his own face tattoos because they don’t represent who he is anymore, and doing so will boost his ability to help his clients when speaking to business owners on their behalf.

Loya, who grew up in the Inland Empire, says in adolescence, he “got involved in the streets” and “hung around the wrong people,” leading a lifestyle that came with tattoos, specific dress codes, and substance abuse.

“I’m thankful for this tattoo removal program because it is helping me erase a mistake that I never thought I could,” Loya says. “I’m happy there is a program for people out there who get a tattoo they wanted, but now they have a different mindset. This program is a solution for that.”

Burruss says tattoo removal programs like Loma Linda University Health’s form part of a greater initiative to support those who need it most in the community. Given the area’s low socioeconomic status and low rates of high school and college graduation, Burruss says it is “not surprising” to see the levels of violence.

“It becomes all of our obligations to approach the issue from many different angles to support and build up the community that we are in,” Burruss says. “This tattoo removal program is one of them.”

To contact the tattoo removal program, email injuryprevention@llu.edu or call 909-558-9405.