SAN JOSE — Up on the fourth floor of the Valley Specialty Center, there’s a new machine called a PicoWay, a state-of-the-art laser blaster that scours flesh clean of tattoos faster and less painfully than its predecessors.
And officials want to take their new laser and aim it at a vulnerable population — survivors of human trafficking.
“Victims of human trafficking are literally tattooed or branded with the name of the person who has enslaved them,” said Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez. “Not only do we need to help these people transform through new kinds of programs, we also need to help them transform physically as well.”
The $300,000 laser was acquired through a partnership between the county, San Jose and the Valley Medical Center Foundation, which collected money from private donors. It’s the third laser to be used in the Clean Slate program that was founded in 1994 with a mission of helping gang members by removing their tattoos.
More than 2,000 have since gone through the program, which in addition to tattoo removal includes case management and peer counseling to put them on a path toward shedding a self-destructive former life.
Mary Benson, who founded Clean Slate while working as a volunteer to rid East San Jose neighborhoods of a gang infestation in the 1990s, said she is “overjoyed” that the new technology will mean expanding the base of clientele.
“This beautiful laser is going to be such a benefit to enrollees,” she said. “For survivors of human trafficking who have been so brutalized it brings healing to remove a symbol that’s a stigma and a reminder of a very traumatic part of their lives.”
With the new laser, doctors can see more people who will need less treatments. Dr. Jack Ackerman, who has been removing tattoos at Valley Medical Center for nearly a decade. It not only cuts the amount of time per session, but chops the number of visits down considerably. A tattoo that might have taken 20 treatments to remove can now be done in 12.
He said the new technology makes for a much more pleasant session than what was available when Clean Slate started.
“Twenty-five years ago it was very slow, and very painful,” he said. “A lot of times there would be bad bruising and bleeding, a lot more scarring — we’d use Lidocaine to numb the area.”
Rebecca Esparza, a 23-year-old who joined Clean Slate after having an epiphany as an incarcerated teen — she didn’t want grow up to be a gangster like her family — said the new laser is a major improvement.
“The old one was 10 times more painful and they’d go over the tattoo three times as many times,” said Esparza, who now works for Clean Slate and also studies communications at Cal State East Bay. “It’s nothing like it.”
Leah Lee doesn’t have gang tattoos and hasn’t been in trouble, but the VMC employee volunteered to serve as a demonstration model for the laser unveiling event. She got her first tattoo at age 15 at a house party — a scripted “FAITH” on her wrist. She covered that with a bigger tattoo a year later, a purple rose.
“At 15 it seemed like a great idea,” she said, “but now I’m 29 and I want it off.”
She was nervous — she’d heard that the process felt like “repeatedly being snapped by a rubber band” or “scalded by spattering oil” and had been icing the underside of her wrist in anticipation.
She was pleasantly surprised. As the laser traveled over the tattoo, dramatically lightening the purple rose to lavender in a 30-second process she was more amazed by the result than startled by the pain.
“Wow!” said Lee. “Oh my god, that looks amazing! It’s a little uncomfortable but it’s not something that’s going to make you cry. It’s not like getting burned by hot oil at all.”
Participants in the Clean Slate free tattoo removal program must be a San Jose resident between the ages of 14 and 25, with visible tattoos — such as on the hands, wrists, neck or face.
They must be committed to a gang-free lifestyle and complete a Life Skills program and 30 hours of community service. They must be either working, going to school or enrolled in a j ob readiness training program.
More information is available at sanjoseca.gov/cleanslate or by calling 408-794-1660.