California Model, Rehabilitation

Tattoo removal gives SQ residents a fresh start

San Quentin’s residents started lining up in the morning to begin a difficult process of becoming their true selves. The residents planned to remove their tattoos as an outward display of their changed way of living.

The service was provided by Mobile Tattoo Removal Experts with funding through AB 109.

Tattoo removal experts

Since 2018, Chris Bendinelli, a registered nurse, and Travis Cole, a laser technician, have been traveling to remove tattoos. They have visited over 30 state prisons and some federal facilities to remove highly visible tattoos on incarcerated people.

“This is [so] fulfilling. I get to see guys crying for joy,” said Bendinelli.

Correctional Officer M. Vesely stood by as 40 residents lined up at the white, mobile van for the free service.

“I think it will help them with finding employment when they get out,” said Vesely.

The coordinator of the service, Kemiko Tolon, talked about the idea of expanding the program beyond CDCR facilities and camps. She discussed the negative impact tattoos have on those getting out of prison.

“The tattoo removal program is for the incarcerated people. We assist with removing their tattoos that are highly visible because we do not want them being judged,” said Tolon.

San Quentin resident Shann Sevior said he was 15 when he got his first tattoo. At 43, he decided he did not want to keep ruining his body or be perceived by the public as that “old gang member.” That is not who he is anymore.

Dedicated to change

“(The tattoos) kept me attached to a dysfunctional lifestyle I was trying to separate myself from. Today, I would like people to see me as a caring and respectful human being, not who I used to be.” said Sevior.

For others thinking about tattoo removal, he offered this piece of advice.

“Give yourself an opportunity to allow others to see you as God created you,” said Sevior.

With a parole suitability hearing rapidly approaching, resident Daniel Garcia said he wants to do as much as possible to leave his past behind.

“This is an amazing program, what CDCR is doing for us,” said Garcia. “I want to prove through my actions that I’m willing to have the change be reflected on the outside, from what is being done on the inside.”

In an interview with SQ News, incarcerated person Steve F. said he tried to get his tattoos removed 15 years ago for his kids, but he could not afford it. When asked to describe the feeling of the laser, he said, “It felt like hot bee stings.”

“This is a huge opportunity to get them removed for free because I’m a different person,” said Garcia.

Story by Bostyon Johnson, San Quentin News Staff Writer
Photos by Vincent O’Bannon, SQ News Staff Photographer
San Quentin Rehabilitation Center

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