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Q and A with Dr. Jim Puterbaugh

by: JIm CLARK, Dr. Jim Puterbaugh erases ink incidents of the past for Outside In patients whose tattoos point to a life they’d like to leave behind.

Every Friday, the Portland Tribune puts questions to a prominent - or not so prominent - local person.

Jim Puterbaugh understands. It may not look like it. There are plenty of ready-made distinctions to be drawn between Puterbaugh and his downtown patients - age, social standing, wealth, occupation. But that would be selling Puterbaugh short.

Once a month Puterbaugh, a 62-year-old physician at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center with not a trace of permanent ink anywhere on his body, volunteers at the Outside In tattoo removal clinic in Southwest Portland.

He'll see 10 or 12 patients, most under 30, who qualify for free tattoo removal because of what you might call the indiscretions of their youth keeping them from becoming contributing members of society. In other words, they can't get a job because their tattoos get in the way.

Puterbaugh's patients at Outside In frequently are former gang members. And some of them had their identifying tattoos done as 'homemade jobs,' as Puterbaugh puts it, rather than by tattoo professionals. The homemade jobs, he says, are much harder to remove. But Puterbaugh remembers that he was once 20 years old himself.

Portland Tribune: You use a laser to remove tattoos. Does it hurt?

Jim Puterbaugh: Yeah, it hurts them. And you ask, 'Was it as bad or worse than having the tattoo itself put on?' And probably 60 percent say it was worse. I had a young lady, she was only 15, she had an arm tattoo put on when she was 12. I hit the laser one time, and she said, 'Ohhh. I'm getting out of here.' But later she came back.

Tribune: Do your patients find it hard to relate to you? Or vice versa?

Puterbaugh: It's kind of interesting, the people who come in would look to you surprisingly successful and well-educated and mature. And the other thing that's sort of a surprise is how much they want them off. They hate them. They say things like, 'This is changing my life.' They'll be in tears. It represents to them a period in their life they no longer want anything to do with.

Tribune: Do your patients talk much about their tattoos?

Puterbaugh: A lot of them are gang tattoos. They'll have a '13,' or a tear out of their eye. These are not little rosebuds on the hip. But to them, they know other gang members would recognize them and they want them off. I'm not sure, but I've heard the tear coming from the eye either means they've served in prison or killed somebody. I'm not sure, and they're not about to tell me.

The one question I've been most interested in is how long they enjoy their tattoo. These are fairly young kids. For a good percentage of them it's about three years. It's surprising how fast they want them off.

Tribune: Have you ever seen one that looked beautiful to you?

Puterbaugh: Oh yeah. A lot of them are nice looking. I guess in the world of tattoos they're works of art. But I wouldn't say I've ever taken one off and said, 'Oh, you ought to keep this one.'

Tribune: No tattoos, but did you ever make any foolish mistakes when you were young?

Puterbaugh: By the time I was a sophomore in college I'd been on every probation at Whitman College at least twice - academic, athletic and social. I was certainly not on the standard road to success. Your frontal lobes don't fully develop in a male until about 23.

- Peter Korn