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Removing the past

When she was 15 years old, Seralynn Neal, an aspiring tattoo and piercing artist, ordered a do-it-yourself tattoo kit on Amazon and tattooed a large black widow on her left forearm.

“I was in a stage where black was all the rage,” she said. “I had piercings all over my face, and I thought I was the coolest thing on this side of the sun. A black widow seemed dangerous.”

In the years after, Neal continued to add ink markings to the canvas that was her body. She tattooed “Drop Dead” across her knuckles, an elaborate cross on her left hand, a heart on her ankle and a rose on her stomach. She also had someone else tattoo the Godsend symbol on her back and “Princess” across her knuckles over the text that was already there.

Then last year, while living at Hearts with a Mission, she decided she wanted to work toward becoming a probation officer. That meant her visible tattoos would have to go.

“It’s not that it would be difficult to get the job with my tattoos,” she said. “I just don’t want this to be the image kids get from me.”

She called tattoo removal services to get an estimate and learned it would cost her $300 a session per tattoo and each tattoo would require six to 10 sessions.

Over the summer, Neal was connected with Jay Tapp, a local business executive and former Kids Unlimited board member who sympathized with her situation and offered to help her out.

Tapp said he's worked with faith-based and community organizations in California and Southern Oregon and has seen people try to hide their tattoos, either because they were ashamed of their poor lifestyle choices or haunted by the memories associated with it. The tattoos could reference hate, drugs, violence, gangs or other criminal activity, or name an abusive ex-husband.

“Sometimes the tattoos are right out in the open and when people see those they make snap judgments,” he said. “It’s tough to get employment if they are visible, and it’s tough to deal with the general public and family members. You constantly have to explain yourself for something you've left behind.”

Earlier this year, Tapp purchased a state-of-the-art tattoo removal laser, costing more than $80,000, and teamed up with Valley Immediate Care to establish Ink Out and provide free and low-cost tattoo removal for at-risk youth, like Neal, and victims of domestic violence.

Tattoo removal is available for $79 a session four days a week at VIC’s South Medford location at 235 East Barnett Road. One day a month, Ink Out provides free or $25 tattoo removal to qualifying candidates referred  by the Juvenile Justice Department, Oregon Youth Authority or local organizations such as Lithia Springs, Hearts with a Mission, Community Works and Southern Oregon Youth for Christ.

Tapp said that the candidates must demonstrate that they are committed to the process, because tattoo removal can take between six and 12 sessions, depending on the color of the tattoo, who applied it and whether it’s a cover-up tattoo. Sessions also can be painful.

The pain, Neal said, makes her squirm but not cry. She compared the pain to having a sunburn snapped by a rubber band.

Tapp said they treated eight qualifying candidates at the last Ink Day, Sept. 9, and expect twice as many next month.

“There’s one individual with ‘pure hate’ across his knuckles and that’s not him anymore but he can’t hide that or wear gloves every day,” Tapp said. "Because of his tattoo, he can’t advance at work and his kids are asking why he did it.”

Brent Kell, CEO of Valley Immediate Care, said the clinic has two trained laser technicians on staff.

“Right now, it’s just available once a month, but we are committed to taking whatever the demand is, so as we see the need we’ll keep expanding.”

In the past, Oregon Youth Authority has transported kids to Portland for this service.

Matt Sweeney, director of juvenile justice ministries with Rogue Valley Youth For Christ, connected Neal and two others with Ink Out.

“For most of the kids that I deal with, the home life they come from — normal for them — is dysfunctional,” Sweeney said. “Normal is a relative term. My normal is not someone else’s normal. You get someone growing up in a gang world or an addiction world who considers that normal. They can’t afford to buy their own food but they can afford a tattoo and in their economy and logic that is sensible. That is cool.”

Sweeney said that sometimes it’s not until after kids graduate and start looking for jobs that they realize how much their tattoos affect their ability to make a living or interact in the community.

Sebastian Pineda, 37, has had three treatments and is already starting to see his tattoos  fade.

Pineda joined a neighborhood gang in Pomona, Calif., when he was 15 years old. Less than a month later, Pineda was shot nine times in a drive-by shooting. One of the bullets severed his spinal cord, paralyzing him from the waist down.

Pineda got his first “Mi Vida Loca” tattoo, three dots typically associated with Mexican gangs, when he was 10. Now, he has eight tattoos,including several “Mi Vida Loca” tattoos visible on his face and hands, as well as his ex-wife’s name on his chest.

Since he’s in a wheelchair, Pineda said, he’s limited to desk jobs, and he wants to have his gang-affiliated tattoos removed to make him more marketable to future employers.

“The memories of the gang and living that lifestyle, I want to erase that,” he said. “I know I can’t get rid of the memories but at least I can erase the look.”

Reach reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or tthomas@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/teresathomas_mt.

Seralynn Neal, 18, is having her self-applied, teenage tattoos removed from her hands as she prepares for a career. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell