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Tattoo removal program helps give former gang members fresh start

(AP Photo)
(AP Photo)
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WOODBRIDGE, Va. (WJLA) - These symbols once represented the lives of local gang members.

Five-thousand of them live in Northern Virginia, MS-13 being the largest, based on Regional Gang Task Force data.

"As I got more involved, I got more and more tattoos," said a former MS-13 gang member who asked to remain anonymous.

Now, these signs, turned stigma are getting zapped, with a laser that breaks down the ink.

"It's like a little small cigarette that never goes out and someone is jabbing the crap out of you with it," said former gang member Juan Montalvo.

Montalvo said he chose to endure the pain, though, to help erase his past."Some tattoos are required to show your loyalty, others you do it out of pride, I guess," he explained.

The 24-year-old spent a decade as a gang member in L.A. and Virginia.

"It's not something I'm proud of - not anymore at least," he added.

The biggest jolt came when a run-in with the law turned personal.

"One day I got arrested in front of my little brothers, and that was the biggest upset of my life, I guess you could say," he recalls. "I can't be that kind of influence for them."

And that's when the "Make a Change" tattoo removal program in Prince William County came into focus.

"The program is to reward them for the good choice they've made in life," explains Rich Buchholz, a Gang Response Intervention Team coordinator. "It's the last visible sign of their past life."

The free service is offered to those aged 29 and younger who meet specific conditions, including 50 hours of community service and no new criminal charges before going under the laser.

Each removal session lasts just a few minutes, and depending on the size and color of the tattoo, the overall process can take anywhere between three and 20 visits.

"In some cases, we get to a point where you can't see much," said Dr. Amir Bajoghli. "In other cases, it might be a shadow or silhouette still left."

For Montalvo, it's a reminder that he's making a different mark on his life.

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"You've got to give up something to make something good happen," he said.

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