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Branded no more

Slowly, but surely, a laser is erasing the ink on Marquise’s forearm.

The cursive “Music Motivated” tattoo, he says, tells the story of past aspirations to be a famous “gangsta rapper.” Three musical notes and a flaming microphone characterize “Mike” — the street persona he adopted as a member of the Bloods.

The 19-year-old is serving time at the Oregon Youth Authority’s Rogue Valley Correctional Facility in Grants Pass. He says he wore his tattoo like a badge of honor — a merit badge of sorts earned by “doing something for the gang."

His “doing something” included attempted murder at age 16 after a gang turf war in Portland’s north side erupted in gunfire.

Another 19-year-old offender, Danny, is eager to blot out his troubled past as a “gang-banger.”

He says his lifestyle “caused too many problems for my family and put my mom in a situation she didn’t want to be in."

“It’s time for me to think about family,” he says.

That’s why Danny endures the laser treatments removing the three-dotted tattoo on his wrist and the charcoal black “1” and “3” tattooed in the web between the thumb and index finger of both hands.

The “1” and “3” represent “Sur 13,” or the Surenos, a gang with roots in Southern California.

The three dots are code for “mi vida loca,” or “my crazy life.” Each dot symbolizes the probable fate of a gang member: jail, hospital or the grave.

During his nearly three years incarcerated at the Grants Pass correctional facility, Danny is considering his options. None of them include “lying in a coffin” anytime soon.

He doesn’t divulge the crimes that sent him to the correctional facility, but the Surenos are often linked to the Mexican mafia, notorious for drug trafficking and gun violence.

“Gang-bangin’,” Danny says, “is something I don’t want to do anymore.”

Marquise and Danny are among the many ex-gang members who have enrolled in Ink Out, a tattoo removal program that has helped erase the past for more than 120 youths in Southern Oregon since its inception three years ago.

Ink Out operates under the auspices of Valley Immediate Care. The program provides eligible candidates an opportunity to receive free or low-cost laser tattoo removal.

Brent Kell, CEO of Valley Intermediate Care, says the program was the brainchild of Jay Tapp, the company's director of business relationships.

In his work with at-risk youth and community gang prevention programs in California and Southern Oregon, Tapp saw many young adults try to hide their tattoos, either because they were ashamed or haunted by the nightmares associated with the past.

The tattoos often referenced hate, drugs, violence, gangs or other criminal activity. In some cases, the ink carried the name of an abusive ex-partner or branded a victim of sex trafficking.

The tattoos can become “an anchor to a past life filled with violence and tragedy,” Tapp says.

He says that “many clearly want change, but simply cannot afford” to have the tattoos removed — which creates a vicious circle, especially if tattoos on the face, neck, arms or hands present barriers to gainful employment.

Tapp says the idea of offering laser tattoo removal for free began percolating after he heard horror stories of individuals trying to remove tattoos with Brillo pads or acid.

“We hope (Ink Out) provides a way for people to be free from many of the negatives that come from visible tattoos,” says Kell. “We see many people gain a new perspective on life. By removing the tattoo, it takes away the need to hide.”

One of the key agencies benefiting from Ink Out is the Oregon Youth Authority. The program is a perfect fit for the agency’s mission to provide youth offenders with opportunities for reformation.

“It’s been a program that provides an invaluable service to youth who desire change,” says Fes Lellis, the activity director and volunteer coordinator at the Rogue Valley Youth Correctional Facility. “It’s fantastic that they voluntarily decided to make this treatment available.”

Marquise and Danny are among the 10 youths currently in the rotation for once-a-month transportation to Valley Immediate Care's south Medford clinic. Both, Lellis says, have attained “high level” status due to the strides they’ve made academically, behaviorally and in the facility’s vocational education program.

While he serves his time, Marquise is learning a trade. He works in the facility’s barbershop and plans to get his barber’s license. He’d also like to go to college and maybe become an engineer.

“If that doesn’t work out, I can always cut hair,” he says.

Danny is finishing up his credits and hopes to earn his high school diploma soon. He is also honing his skills as an artist. He works in the facility’s woodshop and has learned drafting, drawing and design. He would like to add glass-blowing to his resume. He also wants to go to college.

“These are youth who want to change, but they had to earn the privilege to participate” in Ink Out, Lellis explains.

In addition to earning the ride to the clinic, the youths have made a long-term commitment to a process that can take nine to 12 treatments.

It all depends on the depth, the shade, the colors and whether the tattoo was professionally applied.

“I see a lot of terrible tattoos,” says Danae Newton, the laser aesthetician for Ink Out. “Most are not professional. Many were done at a friend’s house when one or the other was high on drugs or drunk.”

Each session is about five minutes.

The process was recently enhanced with the addition of a state-of-the-art laser provided by Quanta, an international medical laser company. The new laser enables Newton to remove more ink colors.

The process is this: The pulse of the laser sends light energy into the skin. Different wavelengths treat different colors of ink. As the light energy is directed into the skin, it is selectively absorbed by the ink particles trapped in the dermis of the skin. When the particles absorb this energy, they instantly shatter into tiny fragments. Once the laser has broken the ink into smaller pieces, the body's immune system works to remove the ink over the following weeks, flushing it away from the tattooed area. This results in the tattoo fading. Each additional laser treatment breaks down more and more ink until the tattoo is invisible.

The success of the tattoo removal relies on the body’s ability to eliminate ink from the skin — and the individual’s ability to endure pain.

Danny says it’s like “scratching an open wound without stopping.”

Marquise, with characteristic bravado, says, “It’s not too bad. Burns for maybe 10 minutes. By the time we get in the car and head back, it’s OK.”

It’s all part of denouncing the gang life.

“My dad was around, but he never taught me to be a man,” says Danny. “I thought I’d learn to be a man in the gang. But, it went a different way.”

He hopes when he is done serving his time, he has an opportunity to mentor his younger brother.

“I want to show him gang life is no way of life,” he says.

Marquise tries to impress the younger teens that “gang-bangin’ is stupid.”

And, taking his own advice, he says: “It’s time for me to live an average life. I’ve seen enough trouble and violence.”

Ink Out continues to accept new candidates in the program. To find out if you or someone you know qualifies, call Jay Tapp at 541-734-9030, ext. 1538.

Reach Grants Pass freelance writer Tammy Asnicar at tammyasnicar@q.com.

Danny, an inmate at the Rogue Valley Youth Correctional Facility in Grants Pass, is participating in a program to remove his tattoos. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]