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 sure?s. Broken stars and phrases promised trouble for rival norte?s.
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.
But if waiting lists and attendance records are any indication, the pain and commitment is no obstacle for the young people eager to get rid of tattoos that are holding them back, said Toni Abraham, program manager for prevention services with Social Advocates for Youth.
"For all of them it's a barrier to employment, and for some it's about erasing bad memories," Abraham said.
The young people waiting in examination rooms on a recent day at the Southwest Community Health Center pulled up sleeves and shirts to reveal tattoos they got sometimes by force or fear.
They pointed to slogans they agreed to when drunk and high. They were inked by acquaintances in bedrooms or strangers in garages.
When her name was called, Jessica, 24, of Santa Rosa kissed her 3-year-old daughter and left the child in her grandmother's lap.
As she stepped into an exam room, Jessica said she didn't know the tattoo a man convinced her to let him ink above her shoulder blades five years ago was a white supremacist slogan used by prison gangs.
She was drunk and high at the time. She was devastated the next day when she found out what it meant.
She tried to hide it, but it wasn't always easy. One day, a tank top revealed the tattoo to a woman sitting behind her on the bus. The woman spit on her.
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