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Antwan Carpenter grew up in the projects of Chicago, idolizing gangsters who sported tattoos. He got his first at age 14 and soon, ink laced with profanity ran across his neck and hands.
Carpenter, 30, moved to St. Paul in 2007, had two kids and tried to move on, but the tattoos marked him: He believes it's the reason he didn't get some jobs and was regularly denied entrance to bars and clubs in downtown Minneapolis. Over the past year he's been attending a program that provides free laser tattoo removal for young people trying to leave gangs and that lifestyle behind.
Participants said the 20-year-old Boys and Girls Club program changed their lives, opening opportunities and redefining their sense of self. But it ended Monday because of dwindling federal funds it relied on.
"It's really tough," said Enrique "Cha-Cho" Estrada, who runs the Gang Reduction and Intervention Program at Neighborhood House. "It's a key part to making that final step in leaving that gang."
Carpenter, who joined the Gangster Disciples in Chicago, and five teens received their last tattoo removal treatments Monday at a site in St. Paul. It takes several sessions to fully remove tattoos, and some clients, including Carpenter, left with unfinished jobs. A complete treatment could run between $1,800 and $3,600.
A dollar sign is emblazoned under Carpenter's right eye, and although it has been treated seven times it has remained stubbornly dark. His other tattoos are largely gone.
"I'm automatically a target," Carpenter said of people's reaction to his face tattoo. "I don't want my kids following in my footsteps."
The tattoo removal program started in 1992 as part of a larger gang intervention program, Getting Out, at the Boys and Girls Club, that focused on Asian gangs. Much like today, participants could qualify for tattoo removal only by meeting other benchmarks in their rehabilitation, including earning a high school diploma, job development skills and volunteerism.
It broadened its scope and began partnering with other organizations and programs, including the Neighborhood House.
The program has served about 500 young people since its inception, said Stoney Hays, vice president of development at the Boys and Girls Club of the Twin Cities.
"There's not another one like it" in the metro area, Hays said.
Financial strain is no stranger to the program. It ran out of funding in the early 2000s, shut down and restarted in 2006.
Organizers are concerned that this latest bout could be especially challenging because of steadily dwindling federal funds and a distaste in private philanthropy for funding anything associated with former gang members, many of whom have committed serious crimes, said Susan Lundin, director of government relations at the Boys and Girls Club of the Twin Cities.
The program began trimming back in late 2011, moving from hosting two tattoo removal sessions every six weeks to one session, which meant treating fewer clients even as demand remained heavy. Police officers, probation officers and others refer clients from all over the metro area to the program.
Just minutes before the last session, Estrada received a call from a St. Paul police gang investigator who wanted to enroll a 12-year-old. Estrada was forced to turn him away.
"It makes me sad," Estrada said. "You can't believe how many calls we get."
The program received two $25,000 federal Justice Assistance grants administered through the Minnesota Department of Public Safety that funded it from July 1, 2011, through this month, and would ideally need $75,000 to $80,000 annually to operate at full capacity, Lundin said. The funding pays for renting the laser at a discounted rate, medical supplies and case managers to work with clients. A doctor, nurse and nursing students from Century College have long provided pro-bono work that amounted to a value of about $62,625 from July 1, 2011, to present, Lundin said.
Minneapolis plastic surgeon Dr. Douglas Gervais has volunteered with the program for 15 years. He said the clients he most vividly remembers are brothers, about 8 and 10, who were forcibly tattooed across their chests in a Cambodian refugee camp.
"They need the tattoos gone to help them get to that next step," Gervais said.
Brian Henderson, 20, of St. Paul has undergone five sessions to remove gang-related homespun tattoos he received on his arms when he was 13. They were inked via a sharpened guitar string dipped in liquid eyeliner.
Henderson spent his youth in and out of juvenile detention, and said when he was about 16 he punched a St. Paul police officer in the face and pushed another one down a flight of stairs. He enrolled in Getting Out about two years ago.
"I was a kid," said Henderson, who is in college. "I didn't know what I was doing. I know I can do better."
Carpenter said removing his tattoos has helped improve his interactions with others.
"I'm starting to feel a whole lot different now," Carpenter said. "I communicate a lot better."
Leaders from the Boys and Girls Club, Neighborhood House, the St. Paul police gang unit and others met earlier this month to brainstorm funding options. Estrada and Lundin said one route may be to seek funding in the medical and health care industries. It's unclear if and when the program could restart.
"This is it?" said client Deondre Riley as he left Monday's session.
"We will rise again!" said volunteer Kathy Bell, dean of Nursing and Allied Health at Century College.
"We will rise again!" Estrada echoed.
Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib