Jeremy Crotteau knows that job-hunting is a painful proposition, especially when you’ve served time. But the 35-year-old has earned bragging rights in my book for what he’s enduring to build a better life for himself and his young son.

On Tuesday Crotteau, a big bear of a guy, leaned back in a St. Paul medical chair, wearing goggles and a grimace. “That pinkie, man … oomph!” Then, “It’s all right. Do what you gotta do.”

“It looks really good, really good,” said certified laser technician Vanessa Lilke, whose training includes tattoo removal. She assessed Crotteau’s knuckles, which spell out an unfortunate phrase unlikely to curry favor with employers.

A youthful mistake, he acknowledged, as are the 13 dots tattooed onto his face.

“How does it feel?” Lilke asked, as she zapped away at the F-bomb.

“Like I want to go stick my hand in a snowbank.”

Crotteau, 35, dropped out of high school in his native Cloquet and became a “hobo,” hopping freight trains, hitchhiking and working odd jobs as a roofer and dishwasher. In 1999, he served a year in prison for second-degree assault, released early for good behavior.

He returned to his free-flowing life, which included little planning and lots of drinking. His wake-up call came three years ago with the birth of his son.

Crotteau wanted a different life, a second chance. He stopped drinking cold turkey. But everywhere he went, he got vibes that the world was not a forgiving place.

At the grocery store, people glared at his face and hands, assuming he’d killed somebody, or that he was in a gang. They’d tell him, “You shouldn’t have a kid.”

“I got tired of people targeting me,” Crotteau said. He got tired, too, of being turned away from jobs due to his criminal past and huge gaps in his work history.

And those tattoos.

“Thankfully, tattoos are more accepted by businesses today,” said Andy Sagvold, manager of ReEntry Services for Goodwill/Easter Seals, where Crotteau turned for help. Goodwill/Easter Seals, a member of the Second Chance Coalition, lobbied in support of Ban the Box, which went into effect Jan. 1. The Minnesota law prohibits employers from asking about criminal history on job applications.

“But if tattoos are visible or if profanity is used,” Sagvold said, “it’s still a barrier to employment. Those were two strikes against Jeremy, and we didn’t have a way to address it.”

Then Goodwill/Easter Seals intern Jonathan Oppenheimer walked into Beloved Studios in St. Paul. The eight-year-old tattoo shop, owned by Brandon and Karis Heffron, added tattoo removal to its offerings in October.

“We have someone who has tattoos on his face and knuckles,” Oppenheimer told Karis Heffron. “Would you be willing to work with us?”

“I was just taken aback,” Heffron said. “Taking off tattoos that are hindering people from getting a job wasn’t on our radar. It’s exciting.

“Yeah,” she said, “I think we’d do something like that.”

She laughs at the fact that her husband creates tattoos and she oversees Lilke, who removes them. “We saw the demand [for tattoo removal] grow over the last couple of years,” Heffron said, adding that the studio was lucky to find Lilke.

Lilke completed a 9-month certification training program in Scottsdale in 2009, where she learned 10 cosmetic laser treatments. She now splits her time between Beloved and a medical spa, but shares Heffron’s personal joy in this effort.

“I’m really excited for Jeremy to start new,” Lilke said, “to get things off his body that represented a time he doesn’t want to be reminded of anymore, to literally erase that part of his life.”

Beloved is donating most of the cost to remove Crotteau’s tattoos, which will require several more visits, spaced out over many months.

Crotteau said that when he heard about Beloved, “I was all over it.” Still, Lilke prepared him for the fact that his tattoos would take on a darker look, as the ink rises to the surface, before beginning to fade.

The good news is that his tattoos weren’t professionally done, which makes them easier to remove.

“In Jeremy’s case, because they were homemade, it won’t take that long,” Lilke said.

But, still, ouch.

“When she went for my knuckles,” he said of Lilke, “I wanted to scream.”

But he scheduled his next appointment for February. He’ll take the bus from Bloomington, where he and his son live in the basement of a duplex.

He’s completing his GED, the equivalent of a high school diploma. He hopes, with the tattoos fading and Ban the Box in place, he can finally find a job in a warehouse or in food service. He has his forklift license, too, noting that he scored 100 percent on his test.

Eventually, Crotteau wants to build a career, maybe in art. He’s a watercolorist.

“It does get easier,” Lilke assured him. She was referring to tattoo removal, but who could blame Crotteau for reading into her kindness another meaning?

“I’m a nice guy,” the soft-spoken Crotteau said with a smile. “Hardworking. I’m just hoping to get my foot in the door.”


Follow Gail on Twitter: @grosenblum