Tattoo removal lets old associations be forgotten

Kyla Smith
The Detroit News

Tapping his foot nervously in a rhythmic pattern, Kris Knox clenched his jaw as Dr. Nichelle Arnold used a small laser to remove the tiny crosses tattooed across his fingers at the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation on Trumbull.

Dr. Nichelle Arnold, right, uses a laser to remove a tattoo from the right wrist of Gillian Amritt, 28, of Detroit. Amritt, who has already been in for several sessions to remove eight tattoos from her body, will have to come back for several more sessions to completely have all of them removed.

Knox who will be released one year early from probation for good behavior, used ink made from Vaseline to tattoo a tear drop on his left cheek, crosses and the word “time” on his fingers, and a swastika on his left leg while serving a three-year prison term.

“I don’t want this negativity anymore. I was 18 when I got these tattoos and they don’t represent who I am today,” said the 30-year-old Sterling Heights native. “When people see me at the mall, they assume I’m a bad person, but I’m not. Although this pain feels like a rubber band on steroids popping at my skin, it’s worth it.”

The Freedom Ink program, offered by the DHDC, brings in dermatologists and certified medical professionals to remove gang or prison tattoos free of charge to help people find better job opportunities.

Dr. Nichelle Arnold, left, chats with Gillian Amritt, 28, of Detroit, after Arnold finished with the tattoo removal session of one out of eight tattoos that Amritt is having removed. Applying vaseline onto her arm is medical assistant Zach Grushky, who will also apply a wrapping to her arm.

“At first when you meet some of these guys, they are speaking low and holding their heads downs,” said Monica Alvarado, program director for DHDC. “When the tattoos begin to fade, you can see a difference in their personality. It’s a real confidence booster for them.”

Depending on the size of the tattoo, it can take five minutes to an hour for each session and up to 16 appointments for the tattoo to fade completely.

“Most people assume the laser is burning the tattoo, but the laser helps to break up the ink pigment in the skin, which is absorbed by the body and then disposed in the lymph system,” said Zach Grushky, medical assistant at the Skin and Vein Centers in Metro Detroit, which offer tattoo removal. “Some are a little hesitant to go through with it, but once they start seeing results, attitudes start to change.”

Grushky said the average price to remove a tattoo is anywhere between $200 and $500 per session and most people require at the least three laser visits.

As Bryce Jester of Detroit waited for his appointment, he clasped his hands tightly so the words “silk” and “gator” tattooed on his fingers wouldn’t be visible.

“I was hustling in the streets and selling drugs. My hands were the only thing my customers could see, so it started to become a part of my business brand,” said Jester. “When I stopped doing that, I became ashamed of my hands. I live an honest life now and I don’t want that to represent who I am.”

In the last three years, tattoo removal has been on the rise as 45,224 people had the procedure done in 2014, up from 40,801 in 2011, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.

Arnold, a dermatology resident at Beaumont Hospital who helps to remove the tattoos at DHDC, said the laser treatments can help improve their self-image.

“Tattoos can be a daily reminder of who you used to be, especially if you have moved on from that phase,” Arnold said. “I feel thankful that I can help make a difference in restoring a person’s image so that they can have a second chance.”

Marianne Martinez, 30, of Detroit, who has no gang or drug affiliation, wanted a tattoo removed that she got when she was younger.

“I had my now ex-husband’s name tattooed on my wrist. That was a big mistake,” said Martinez, who recently became engaged to someone else. “I would advise anyone who wants a tattoo to think wisely before getting one and please don’t get anyone’s name.”

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