Albert Gomez steeled his jaw as the laser traced the tattoo on his right forearm. Click! Click! Click! The staccato sound filled the room as the laser flickered and the black ink faded away.

Gomez, 18, held back a wince. The reason he got the tattoo in the first place was to show how tough he was, to show pride in the gang he joined when he was 13.

Now, he wants a chance at an education, a job in the medical field and the peace of mind knowing that he truly has left the gang life.

Neighborhood House, a longtime St. Paul nonprofit, is helping him and other former gang members make that transition through a year-old program that provides free tattoo removal. It's part of a larger gang reduction and intervention initiative that's funded through government and private grants.

So far 24 former gang members from age 14 to 25 have gotten tattoos taken off at Neighborhood House and a location in Minneapolis. Some entered the program after leaving juvenile detention, others showed up because they just wanted to make a change.

Getting out of a gang and on the right track is one thing, but doing it without the physical reminders of that life is another, said Enrique (Cha-Cho) Estrada, who runs the anti-gang program.

"Go out and try to get a job when you've got tats on your face, a spiderweb on your forehead, and no one's gonna want to hire you," Estrada said. "Besides removing that label, that physical label, a lot of times it's kind of a personal thing for the young kids."

Having tattoos removed professionally is expensive, running from $800 to more than $5,000 depending on size, color and quality.

Estrada has seen teens use lemons, sandpaper and blades to try to remove their tattoos.

Three doctors volunteer to do the removals through Neighborhood House. Joseph Campanelli, a facial plastic surgeon with Midwest Facial Plastics, is one of them. He said it's important to take it slow when removing tattoos.

"In most cases, it's a gang sign," Campanelli said. "If you take a tattoo out and leave a scar in its place that looks exactly like the gang tattoo, you really haven't helped these kids."

It typically takes between six and 12 sessions, with four to six weeks in between, to remove a tattoo.

New St. Paul Police Chief Tom Smith, a lifelong West Side resident who has been active at Neighborhood House and in youth programs, said getting gang tattoos removed is critical. The tattoos create problems right off the bat, he said, especially violence.

While the city has seen a decrease in violent gang activity, he said, it's important to keep programs like the one at Neighborhood House running.

Armando Camacho, the organization's president, said the program will continue for at least one more year but, like many nonprofits, Neighborhood House will need to find more stable sources of money.

Handcuffed by tattoos

Xaviera Wyne, 24, got tattoos of handcuffs on her wrists when she joined a gang in Texas when she was 15.

"Stupid. Very stupid," she said. "Big ol' handcuffs on your wrists are a big ol' red flag, people assume right away you're a gangbanger. Getting rid of them means more opportunities and better chances of getting a job."

Wyne is finishing her training as a medical assistant.

She has a few more sessions before the removal is complete. Gomez, meanwhile, got to feel the satisfaction of having one tattoo finished.

It feels good to know the ink is leaving his body, he said.

"I was young and dumb, what can you do? I'm a new person. These tattoos are a whole different person, so why would I have them on?"

Chris Havens • 612-673-4148