By Lynda Gonzalez
For Reporting Texas
On a recent Saturday morning, the front door at Seton Kozmetsky Community Health Center swung open, and Andre Costa, entered the lobby with his mother following close behind. Looking to enlist in the U.S. Navy, the crew-cut 21-year-old was on a mission: To appease his recruiter, he needed to lose the part of the tattooed cross on his neck that would be visible above a uniform shirt collar.
Costa had come to the right place. The nonprofit Central Texas Tattoo Removal Project offers to remove unwanted tattoos for a generally affordable $60 for adults. That’s popular with people like Costa for whom recent changes in military regulations meant erasing his body art or giving up on dreams of serving his country.
“I’ve always wanted to do military, and I couldn’t get into the Army, same reason,” Costa said. “But Navy, they were actually willing to work with me if I got it removed.”
Jeannette Burke founded the CTTRP in 1999, with seed money from the state attorney general’s office, to provide a free service for adolescents seeking to shed obscene or gang-related tattoos. The project has since expanded its clientele and charges a fee for adults aged 19 and older. The organization holds a clinic on the third Saturday of each month where volunteers, both non-medical and medical, serve up to 15 clients.
But growth has brought challenges. CTTRP’s $60 fee covers its minimum operating costs, but it doesn’t generate the funds needed to provide business support services or buy state-of-the-art equipment. Seton allows the group to use its space, but the two are not affiliated.
“It’s frustrating for me,” said Mackayla Belle, who handles scheduling at CTTRP. “There’s a lot of nonprofits out there that have a very sophisticated structure and don’t do a lot of good on the ground helping people. Whereas this organization, which I feel does a lot of good… doesn’t really have that higher structure to take care of it.”
The biggest bottleneck may be CTTRP’s lack of 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, which makes contributions tax deductible for the donor and helps raise funds. While the project submits annual financial reports to the state comptroller’s office, it doesn’t have funds for the accountant fees needed to apply for and maintain the 501(c)(3) designation, Belle said.
“We have not filed those papers because it’s expensive,” said Burke. “We’re so small, and we take in so little money, and whatever we take in is what we spend on supplies.”
Volunteers at CTTRP have helped potential military recruits like Costa, mothers looking to set examples for their children to eschew tattoos, youth under juvenile probation and adults seeking job opportunities.
“If you find yourself with a tattoo that … is prohibiting you from getting jobs and … there’s no way to get rid of it … it’s very frustrating,” Belle said. “So, I get to see the moment when people find there is a way.”
University of Texas at Austin sociology professor Mark Warr said removing a tattoo affects the way society perceives a person, especially someone who has had a brush with criminal activity.
“If you ask people to describe the prototypical criminal… tattoos are a commonly cited feature,” Warr said. “The fact that most gangs use tats to communicate identity and ideas surely contributes to the stereotype. When offenders want to desist from crime, removing tattoos can be a major step in that direction.”
Registered nurse Donna Payne has volunteered with CTTRP for about seven years and witnessed cases that illustrate how removal can transform a person’s identity.
In one case, a client’s husband had tattooed her name on his chest while he was serving a prison sentence. Released, the husband forced the woman to tattoo his name on her chest. The man was eventually killed in an encounter with police after a domestic abuse call escalated and he was shot.
“Getting this tattoo off for her was a huge transition in her life because it was symbolic of ‘I’m leaving that behind… I’ve gotten out of that,’ ” Payne said.
Unlike standard laser removal procedures, CTTRP uses a device called an infrared coagulator that dispenses a series of second-degree burns to the tattooed area.
The process leaves a client with raw, exposed skin, requiring from six to 12 months of follow-up wound treatment. That means having the treated area covered and under constant pressure to prevent the growth of keloids, the bubbly scar tissue common in burn injuries.
Despite its rigors, infrared coagulation treatment has its advantages, according to Belle, since lasers are not effective on some of the crudely homemade tattoos that are common among underage clients.
During the Saturday clinic at Seton, a 16-year-old named Sebastian, whose last name was withheld in keeping with CCTRP’s confidentiality policy regarding minors, showed up to get the number 45 removed from the flesh between his left forefinger and thumb, an amateur tattoo he’d had done when he was 14.
“You’ve got to be careful what you get,” he said, as he held out his freshly treated hand for inspection. Scar tissue resembling white pudding had replaced the tattoo. “I want to get a job. When I shake somebody’s hand or serve fast food or something, I don’t want to see a four and a five. I want to look professional.”
Rebecca Herring, another volunteer nurse, said her colleagues do not judge the choices clients like Sebastian have made in the past.
“We try to treat them with respect,” she said. “A lot of kids that we see don’t get a lot of respect, and I think they respond to that real well from us because we’re not judgmental.”
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the relationship between the Central Texas Tattoo Removal Project and the Seton Kozmetsky Community Health Center.