Blank Slate: Free Tattoo Removal Helps Strip off Badges of Sin

Blank Slate: Free Tattoo Removal Helps Strip off Badges of Sin September 13, 2015

One evening in Moscow, I happened to glance at the hand of the man I was drinking alongside. Tattooed into the fleshy part between thumb and forefinger were five dots, arranged exactly like pips on a die. This guy was the most harmless-looking Russian I have yet to meet – he reminded me of George Costanza – but the tattoo meant he’d spent time, not merely in prison, but in odinochka, or solitary confinement. One man, four walls.

I never did find out whether that man had any plans to immigrate to the US. Even daring to hope he’s still alive seems a little extravagant. But if he is, and if he’s joined the California section of the Russian diaspora, he can find doctors to laser those dots away for free. Blank Slate, sponsored by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Monterrey, engages “retired and off-duty physicians” to remove tattoos from people “who feel their ink is holding them back from putting past mistakes behind them.”

When it comes to permanent subcutaneous ink injections, there are mistakes and mistakes. In a press release, program director Maria Runciman makes clear that Blank Slate isn’t concerned primarily with “decorative tattoos.” Instead, typical clients are “former prostitutes who were branded by their pimps with tattoos, people who were in abusive relationships and want the names of their abusers removed.” Clean Slate also helps former gang members looking to land steady jobs and former white supremacists whose swastikas and “88’s” are barring them from the armed forces.

An Aleteia article compares being cleansed of a gang tattoo to the “erasure” of sin through confession and reconciliation. It reminds me more of baptism – adult baptism, the kind I underwent myself. Blank Slate obliges applicants to perform 20 hours of community service in return for their favors – a bargain, considering doctors typically charge more than $100 to remove ink from every square inch of tattooed skin. But I remain unconvinced it compares with shedding 36 years of accumulated sins, great and small, over the course of three short dunks.

Among underworld tattoos, you’ll find many eyesores – crude amateur renderings of teardrops and spider webs, or inscriptions in Olde English letters. But you’ll also find some real beauties. Over the years, I came to recognize a distinctive black-and-white fine-line style apparently developed in the state penitentiary at Florence. Whether it represents the work of a single, very talented inmate or a whole school of acolytes I don’t know. Either way, you can see it expressed on arms, shoulders and backs all over the Valley, in images of La Santa Muerte and scenes of Aztec human sacrifice.

Like military campaign ribbons or patches on bikers’ jacket, underworld tattoos also function as a CV, a visible syllabus of professional achievements. Every criminal subculture has its own code. Russian Mafiosi who have served time in prison advertise their commitment to the life by marking their skin with cathedrals – a new cupola for every sentence completed. Significantly, these cupolas have no crosses. Whoever flashes these symbols is guaranteed a certain amount of respect and admiration from his peers.

The Act of Contrition includes the phrase “I detest my sins,” and this is an easier thing said than done. Sinning, let’s face it, is fun, or can at any confer immediate advantage. Thomas Aquinas wrote that all sin results from “an inordinate desire for some temporal good,” which in turn proceeds from “a disordered love of self.” Detesting the sin means re-ordering both desires and love of self, which can feel, to the sinner, like scaling back both, a process hard to distinguish from shrinking, which is the furthest thing from fun.

Whether you’d rather compare it to reconciliation or an adult baptism, there is something sacramental about stripping off all that elegant, gruesome plumage. It’s a visible sign of willingness to sacrifice inordinate self-love and desire for the ordinate kind, even at the cost of exchanging the flamboyant life of an armed robber or drug dealer for the more modest one of a Wal-Mart cashier. Losing the stars on the knees or the five-pointed crown is a way of saying you’re ready, as the man put it in Goodfellas, to live out the rest of your life like a schnook.

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