Tattoo removal program gives ex-cons new start
Detroit — Lance Alexander has seven tattoos. Three were inked in prison.
After his release, he said he needed a fresh start and doesn't want the ink to be part of his new life.
“I wanted to get them removed because I plan on becoming a businessman, or I may even want to get into acting,” said Alexander, 26, who was homeless but as of Thursday said he moved in with his brother.
Alexander, of Detroit, said he served time in Macomb Correctional Facility on a parole violation for a home invasion.
To help, dermatology residents from Beaumont Health are erasing tattoos with a laser to enable Alexander and others like him to begin anew through the Freedom Ink Tattoo Removal Program, which is part of the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation in Corktown. The 10-year-old program, which has helped hundreds of participants, is among only three free tattoo removal programs in the nation. The other two programs are in New York City and Los Angeles.
According to Monica Alvarado, manager of Freedom Ink, the Detroit program was patterned after Homeboy Industries Tattoo Removal in Los Angeles. Freedom Ink in Detroit, officials said, is the only one where dermatology residents from a hospital come to do the laser treatments. The effort serves at least 60 ex-felons monthly.
Alvarado said clients of the program must commit to a drug-free and gang-free lifestyle and be employed or looking for work.
Alexander said he learned of the opportunity through a friend.
“Someone told me about it prior to my being released,” he said. “I felt I needed to take advantage of the opportunity, and maybe I could inspire others to think about it.”
Dr. Lauren Law, a third-year resident and second-year dermatology resident at Beaumont Hospital in Farmington Hills, has been working on erasing Alexander’s tattoos twice a month for nearly 10 months. She's one of five volunteer dermatology residents from the hospital system's Farmington Hills campus who assist with the program.
“It is a moving experience for not only the patient but also for us,” Law said. “It is a part of their past where they thought they were marked forever, but now they can have a new identity.”
But the removal process is painful and can take months. Depending on size, tattoo removal sessions can last from five minutes to an hour. For a tattoo to fade completely, it can take six to eight sessions, Law noted.
“It’s hot and feels like you’re getting a tattoo all over again,” Alexander said. “But I’ll usually squeeze a stress ball during the procedure.”
Law agrees with that assessment: “It is painful. They say it feels like hot grease. And there’s no anesthetics used and they feel everything."
But the removal process, she said, is more than just aesthetics.
“Patients coming out of prison can’t get jobs because the tattoos don’t make them presentable,” she said. “To get a tattoo removed that’s only the size of a business card can cost $300 per session, and that’s just for a small one — not the whole tattoo. It is very expensive, and it prevents people from getting back to work.”
Law said Alexander is on his 20th treatment, but the ordeal is not nearly over.
“It’s starting to fade, but he will need more treatments,” she said.