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Body ink goes the way of dodgy pasts

Project Erase makes tattoos history, providing a cleaner slate for brighter futures

The names of ex-boyfriends, initials, old nicknames, and other symbols dotting her fingers, neck, ankles, face and breasts just didn't have the appeal they once had.

In fact, the tattoos were more than just outdated Ñ they were scarring 30-year-old Michelle Patton's chances for work as a customer service agent, she said. They also were constant reminders of her history on the streets, in jail and on drugs.

Today, she has the opportunity to rid the marks through a laser treatment at no cost to her so that she can more successfully continue her transition to a clean and stable lifestyle.

Patton is one of 50 people who have started participating in Project Erase, a program offered by Outside In, a nonprofit agency that provides medical, mental health and social services to low-income people and homeless youth.

The tattoo-removal program Ñ one of a handful in the state Ñ is meant to help former gang members, homeless youth and young adults such as Patton remove the stigmas of their former lives, clinic administrators say.

The program is so popular that 170 people already are on the waiting list. Most patients are referred by their probation officers. That includes Patton, who served time in a Washington County jail on drug and theft charges.

That was two years ago. On a recent Saturday, she was excited to receive her first treatment. Ten small bandages now hide the fading marks.

'It's painful,' she said. 'More painful than getting the tattoo. It feels like a rubber band snapping your skin real hard. But it's well worth it.'

The treatment starts with a 15-minute session with a $10,000 laser machine donated to the clinic earlier this year by the Oregon Psychiatric Association. In addition, the Northwest Health Foundation donated $90,000 to Outside In for staff members who will track results of the project and maintain the laser.

The technology works when the laser hits the skin and disintegrates the ink molecules, leaving other tissues intact. It's 95 percent effective, and similar treatments at other clinics cost $250 per session, according to Outside In.

It takes a minimum of four to six treatments to remove each tattoo, with a wait of six weeks between treatments for the skin to heal.

Clinic staff members soon hope to be able to accommodate more than the 10 to 15 patients they currently treat each month. Outside In is recruiting physicians willing to be trained in the use of the laser and who will volunteer their time to treat patients.

For more information, see www.outsidein.org.

Patton hopes kids will think twice before getting tattoos that they initially think they'll cherish forever, like she did. She has other things to cherish now.

December will mark two years that she has been clean and sober. She rents an apartment in Cornelius and has a steady boyfriend whom she plans to marry. She's a full-time student at Portland Community College, studying to become a drug treatment counselor. And she said she has regained custody of her two children, 11 and 13, who were taken away from her while she was in jail.

'This is just another aspect of cleaning up my life,' she said. 'A way to get rid of my past.'

Contact Jennifer Anderson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .