Program helps former gang members remove the last physical traces of their gang involvement.

Gang Tattoo Removal Clinic Opens Doors to the Future

Former gang members are getting a new lease on life

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Doctors and nurses deal with patients from all walks of life, but at a special clinic which has been operating in the community for the last eight years, there’s no question about the patients’ background. All of them are former gang members. Members of the Gang Response Intervention Team invited Sentara Northern Virginia Medical Center for a chance to witness what takes place at these clinics. The only stipulation- we’re not able to reveal the identity of the patients or the health professionals.

This is their story…


There’s a constant repetitive, popping noise, with small flashes of light coming from what looks like a wand. The doctor is holding that wand and in this case is like a fairy godmother, answering prayers.

“He rarely misses an appointment. Every six weeks he’s here,” says the doctor.

The patient and doctor in this case have asked not to be identified. That’s because the patient used to be a gang member, now he’s getting rid of the tattoos which are the last physical reminders of his past. He says they don’t bother him, but he worries about his family’s safety.

“I always picture myself taking my child to the park with the tattoos I had and catching the wrong person there. Even though I’m not affiliated anymore, because of all the writings I had –somebody could take that the wrong way and my child would be affected,” says the 30-something.

For the last five years he has participated in this program, a gang tattoo removal clinic for Greater Prince William County. 

“For the longest time, I wouldn’t walk outside my house without a long sleeve shirt on,” he says, remembering back.

It been a long journey- full of blood, sweat, but no tears he says, “You’ve got to get yourself mentally prepared (to do this.)”

Even though he puts on a brave face, the Doctor is a little more direct when talking about the experience, “It hurts like hell! He sits here and he puts up with it. He encourages me to keep going so we can get the best results.”

The program started eight years ago. It was after Richard Buchholz, Coordinator of the Gang Response Intervention Team (GRIT), had received countless calls from concerned parents and educators asking for help. It was then he realized there was a problem. Now more than 40 participants later, he knows this program has made a difference, “It makes me feel good that we’re here to provide this service for them. I’m proud of them,” he says talking about the patients here. “We don’t hold their pasts against them. Some of those guys have had some real gang involvement in the past, but they turned their lives around and we’re here to help.”  

To enter the program the participant has to be gang-free, commit to community service and appointments for laser removal that last anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes every six weeks.

The patients admit, it hurts more to get rid of these tattoos than the original sittings for the ink, but they say no pain, no gain, “The outcome is worth it. My momma loves it!” says one patient smiling.

And, the patients aren’t ones who are reaping the benefit of this program, “We’re here, because we want to be here. We’re here, because we want to help these kids. They’re an inspiration” says one Sentara volunteer. “They’re family.”