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Skin and ink

A controversial tattoo removal service returns

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Seth Souza was one treatment short of having a tattoo completely removed when the Liberty Tattoo Removal Program closed its clinic due to the retirement of its only volunteer doctor. From the time he began the program in the spring of 2004 until its closure in December 2005, Souza underwent nine laser treatments to remove the word "PAIN" from the back of his neck. While most of the tattoo has been removed, remnants of the black lettering still remain.

DISAPPEARING INK :  Seth Souza has undergone nine laser treatments to have his tattoo removed. The process pictured here took from spring of 2004 to December 2005. He has got one treatment left. - PHOTOS COURTESY OF SETH SOUZA
  • PHOTOS COURTESY OF SETH SOUZA
  • DISAPPEARING INK : Seth Souza has undergone nine laser treatments to have his tattoo removed. The process pictured here took from spring of 2004 to December 2005. He has got one treatment left.

# "To everyone else it's gone," Souza said. "But to me, it's still there."

A week ago, Souza received a call informing him that the Liberty Tattoo Removal Program will resume operation of its clinic in March.

"I was ecstatic," he said. "I called my mom and dad to tell them."

For Souza, the tattoo is a reminder of a brief period in his life eight years ago in which he was "just being stupid and not thinking of the future." During that time, he got in trouble with the law and spent close to seven weeks in the Fresno County jail. The day after his release, he got the tattoo.

"I'm 26 now, and I'm trying to move on," Souza said.

For those who qualify, the program administered by the Economic Opportunity Commission (EOC) of San Luis Obispo County removes anti-social and gang-related tattoos at no cost.

"These are tattoos that are preventing people from making positive changes in their lives," said Janet Allenspach, program coordinator. "If you have '666' on your neck or 'fuck you' on your eyelids, it's pretty hard to get a job."

She said that many of the tattoos they remove are also psychologically damaging. One program participant, she remembered, had tattoos all over his face and didn't like to walk down the street because people were afraid of him. For many of the women participants, their tattoo is a constant reminder of an abusive relationship.

Since the clinic closed, Allenspach said, they've received many calls from participants anxious to resume their treatments.

"They know this is making a difference," Allenspach said. "It's breaking ties to a sordid past."

It took a year to find a replacement dermatologist for the Liberty Tattoo Removal Program because there aren't many in the area who are interested or qualified, said Kayla Wilburn, associate director of EOC Health Services. After much community outreach, Allenspach was able to recruit two new volunteers: Dr. Frederick Novy and Dr. Charles Fishman.

During the hiatus, Allenspach also worked on recruiting more participants for the program and securing funding for another year of operation.

"We have to work hard every year to keep the program open and running," Wilburn said. "Funding continues to be an issue for that program because it's so politically charged for a lot of people."

According to Wilburn, Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) secured funds for the program in 2001, which created a backlash after conservative talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh ranted about it on his show. Capps' move made waves around the country, leading some to label it pork-barrel spending.

Aside from one part-time paid employee, the program is run by volunteers. And for every treatment received, participants must complete 16 hours of community service at a nonprofit organization. A tattoo's removal can take between one and 15 treatments.

Allenspach said many participants find the volunteering aspect of the program as valuable as the removal, if not more so. Souza, who has completed all of his required community service, continues to clean up garbage along the highway.

"I do it because I like it, and I don't see anyone else doing it," he said.

Souza, who helped with fundraising prior to the clinic's closure, is excited that he can finally schedule his last treatment.

"[The tattoo] was a negative conversation starter," he said. Now that the tattoo is partially removed, he said, "I get much more positive feedback."

INFOBOX: It's not really permanent

The Liberty Tattoo Removal Program relies on funding from fundraisers, grants, donations, community sponsors, and more. Current supporters include Tenet Healthcare Foundation, Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center, Criminal Justice Administrators of SLO County, San Luis Obispo County, the SLO County Sheriff's Department, the SLO County Probation Department, United Way of SLO County, Rotary International, the SLO County District Attorney's Office, and Grizzly Youth Academy.

For more information about the program, call Janet Allenspach at 781-1285.

Contact freelancer Shawna Galassi through the editor at rmiller@newtimesslo.com.

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