LITTLE VILLAGE — AJ was a bit nervous as he waited in line to get a gang tattoo removed.
The massive neck tattoo — a five-point star that signifies allegiance to the Spanish Vice Lords — didn't hurt when he got it at age 16 ... because he was high on PCP.
But he wondered what it would feel like to get it removed by laser treatment.
"I've felt quite a bit of pain," said AJ, who asked that his full name not be printed. "I've been shot, stabbed, tatted up. So I don't think this will feel too different."
Now 19 and considering starting his own business, AJ went Wednesday to La Villita Community Church, where reformed gang members and others could get tattoos removed for a significantly discounted price.
The idea for the event originated with the church's pastor, Vic Rodriguez, and his friend, David Alvarez. For $20, neighborhood men and women could come and get their unwanted ink removed, and hopefully, have a better chance at turning their lives around, Rodriguez said.
"It's a second chance, in a weird way," he said. "It's erasing a bit of your past. These tattoos eventually hinder you, especially when you're not associated with that [gang] life anymore."
The group will hold three more sessions, including ones on the west side of Little Village, because "sometimes people can't get to the other side of the neighborhood" for fear of violence, Alvarez said.
"We decided to serve both sides of the neighborhood," he said.
The friends had previously helped reformed gang members get back on their feet, which is how they came up with the tattoo-removal idea. They hired Adrian Torres, a neighborhood tattoo artist who also does some removal work.
"I live in the neighborhood, and I've seen a lot of people die," Torres said. "Anything we can do to stop that, I am willing to try."
Adrian Torres works to remove a tattoo from a woman at La Villita church in Little Village. [DNAinfo/ Joe Ward]
At least 20 people showed up Wednesday to La Villita, 2300 S. Millard Ave. There were a few women, though mostly men, ranging from teenagers to middle-age adults.
One woman there said she had just gotten out of the Latin Kings about six months ago.
In her 23 years as a gang member, the woman said she had been shot eight times, mostly in her leg. Now, with a 16-year-old and an 11-year-old child, the woman said she needed to take positive steps to put that life past her.
"I'm in my 30s — I put in 23 years" in the gang, she said. "My kids are getting older, so I had to do it. I have to work, right?"
Many at the tattoo-removal event said their ink showing gang affiliation hinders their ability to transition to a different life.
Claudia Banks, spokeswoman for Safer Foundation, a nonprofit that helps those with criminal records recover their lives, said tattoo removal is not just a symbolic gesture. It can actually lead to a better quality of life, she said.
"It's even harder [to get a job] if they have very visible tattoos," she said. "When you're walking into an interview, whether it's fair or not, people judge you by that first look."
AJ said his employer, a Ford dealership, has expressed concern over particular tattoos.
"They gave me a tough time because of it," he said.
As a trained mechanic, AJ said he wants to advance his career and maybe open a business of his own. But he said he knows that appearances matter in business, and he said he's trying to do something to remedy the situation.
"I hope it opens more doors for me," he said of the choice to get his tattoo removed. "I just gotta pray, keep moving."
La Villita is also hosting tattoo-removal sessions on April 6 and May 4 from 6-7:30 p.m.
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