Cris Pulido was once a walking billboard for violence.
Thick black tattoos marred his neck and sprawled down his arms, back and legs. The symbols and slogans pled allegiance to the sureños. Broken stars and phrases promised trouble for rival norteños.
Just one look at him might start a fight.
"Without saying words, it was a challenge," said Pulido, 30, who grew up in Santa Rosa and now lives in Novato.
But since 2010, Pulido has been chipping away at that identity during the slow and painful process of removing his tattoos.
Each month, about 40 teenagers and adults like Pulido fill the waiting room at a Santa Rosa clinic for Clean Slate, the city's tattoo removal program run by Social Advocates for Youth.
They arrive to erase allegiances to gangs, former lovers and pimps. They arrive to remove obstacles to jobs. They come to undo what once seemed like indelible choices.
"People don't stare anymore," said Pulido, who has endured 18 sessions in about two years, with breaks to allow his skin to heal. "People treat me normal now."
Today, the thick black tattoos on his neck are barely visible.
Entering its fifth year in Santa Rosa, Clean Slate uses laser technology to remove tattoos through a painful procedure that hurts more than getting a tattoo.
The process takes months and sometimes years to diminish a tattoo, depending on the size, quality and ink of the tattoo.
Since 2008, 15 young people have completed the program and a current roster of 70 people are undergoing treatment. Twenty-seven have dropped out.
Young people, ages 24 and under, pay a $50 one-time fee and give 25 hours of community service before their first session. There is a long waiting list for older adults, who pay $65 per session.
It is a massive commitment for youth, who must continue showing up month after month for a painful procedure.