Doctors Robert Bentley and Barbara Ferré make the past disappear every day.
They perform this vanishing act with plenty of precision, high-powered laser guns, and hours of volunteer services for their community.
These doctors are two of eleven volunteers at Outside In, a Portland, Oregon nonprofit shelter and clinic for low-income and at-risk youth. The company offers low cost tattoo removal services, which allow doctors to wipe away marks symbolizing memories of lives that many patients are attempting to leave behind.
Removing a tattoo is no simple task. It’s expensive, painful, and time-consuming. But for the patients these doctors serve, the fading of their ink is the first step toward a better life.
The services focus on removing gang-related, drug-related, violent, criminal, and hate tattoos. While the clinic prioritizes youth patients, it has served all on a need-based and case-by-case basis since 2001.
“We cover almost everybody–homeless, housed, people with incomes, or without. We see a lot of diversity within the clinic,” says Jarratt Taylor, the director of Outside In’s tattoo removal program. He says the main reasons a patient wants to remove a tattoo are for better job prospects and a chance to move on from the past.
As the only clinic of its kind offering this service, they’ve steadily maintained 150–200 appointments a month since 2005. The clinic is searching for more volunteer doctors and nurses in hopes of establishing a base of twenty volunteers by the end of the month.
For the doctors, the experience is seen as anything but extra work hours. After Bentley received a letter calling for the help of doctors, he began volunteering at Outside In. Now, six and a half years later, he spends at least three hours a month at the clinic removing tattoos in addition to his full-time job at EyeHealth Northwest as an ophthalmologist.
“It’s a tremendous slice of the population . . . different from the usual people I interact with,” Bentley says. He sees a diverse group of patients every month, all looking to get their lives together, but with little to no money to do it. “It’s not just people who were incarcerated or with gang-related ties; it’s really all kinds of people,” he says.
The dynamic population is one reason why Bentley and Ferré have been volunteering since 2005. Both agree that the laid-back atmosphere of the clinic, paired with the opportunity to help improve people’s lives, has been well worth the hours on top of their full-time schedules.
Bentley’s patients have ranged from ages twelve to fifty, but the majority are in their twenties and thirties. And every patient has his or her own story.
Bentley says most of the patients are open about what their tattoos mean and why they want them removed. One of his most memorable patients was a middle-aged man with several large swastikas and Aryan nation tattoos that he wanted removed before his infant daughter grew old enough to understand their meanings. It is experiences like these that make Bentley feel like he is helping create more than just cosmetic changes. “You’re really positively affecting someone’s life,” he says.
Bentley has also dealt with his share of angry patients; some have curtly told Bentley it’s none of his business what their tattoos means. But Bentley says the majority of patients at the clinic are very grateful and enjoyable to work with, even with the unpleasant process of tattoo removal.
A simple design can be tattooed within minutes. To remove it can often take between eight to twenty brief laser treatment sessions, which all of Bentley’s patients agree are far more painful than the initial application. “People describe it as when you snap a rubber band against someone’s skin really hard; it’s a really sharp pain,” he says.
Ferré got involved with Outside In six years ago. She is a doctor in the Metropolitan Pediatrics office at Legacy Good Samaritan and, like Bentley, also volunteers around three hours a month. “As a physician, we’re really fortunate to have the skill set we have,” she says. “I really wanted to give back to the community.”
Each month, the doctors see sixteen to twenty patients individually for brief but effective segments. Of these, both say the most common removals are those related to West Coast gang activity.
Many of the common gang tattoos in the Portland area originate from Latino gangs, such as the three dots forming a triangle usually placed on the hand that symbolize the phrase “Mi Vida Loca.” Other common tattoos are XIII or XVIII, referring to the Los Angeles-based Thirteenth and Eighteenth Street gangs. With the reported substantial increase in gang-related activity in the Portland area, there are also many searching for a clean break from this lifestyle.
“Being out in public can be really challenging. They’re not connected with that life anymore, but it still appears they are,” says Taylor.
The clinic also sees some cases of domestic violence tattoos, such as forced branding or the tattooed names of their oppressor, symbolizing the painful experiences of the victims. Ferré says removing the deep ink from patient’s skin is a tangible step toward a fresh start.
More than an unrelenting symbol of past suffering, these tattoos can stand in the way of patients establishing new lives for themselves and becoming successful in the job market. Exposed and extreme tattoos, such as H-A-T-E inked on the knuckles, aren’t likely to encourage a call back after a job interview.
Bentley says that behind gang marks, the most commonly removed tattoos are any that can be seen when people are fully clothed. “Often people immediately draw a conclusion about the person,” he says.
“Sometimes it’s just about what having a tattoo says.”
Most laser tattoo removal services average around $200 to $500 a session, which can total between $1,000 and $10,000 when the tattoo is finally removed. With services ranging from twenty-five to fifty dollars, Outside In gives low-income people an affordable option where there was none before.
The high prices for these services mean the volunteers could be profiting from their services at a cosmetic clinic, but both doctors point to the value of the experience and the lives they change through their practice at Outside In.
“I have not had a bad experience with a patient [at Outside In],” says Ferré with a laugh. She says private practice patients can be more demanding than those in the tattoo removal program. She’s been amazed by how working with this fragment of the population has broadened her outlook on humanity.
Taylor sees the doctors working wonders in the lives of their patients with every appointment. “[The tattoo removal] definitely boosts their morale for creating a new life, moving on, and maybe getting a job. Or not having to deal with people thinking one way about them just because they see their tattoo,” he says.
Between interacting with patients, learning their stories, and helping them move forward, Bentley considers his time at Outside In one of the most enjoyable things he does.
“It’s an opportunity to remove one more area of stigma that hinders their lives.”
The doctors watch as each tattoo’s ink slowly fades with every laser session, giving patients’ futures the space to grow brighter. Bentley plans on taking part in this for years to come.
“The ability to do this—those are the things you go into medicine for.”