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A Chance for a Clean Start

"We need to make sure we are doing everything conceivable," Connolly said. "That's what prevention is all about. We are trying to deter the growth of these gangs. It is a law enforcement issue, but it is not just a law enforcement issue."

The gang summit on Feb. 25, which will be at the Fairfax County Government Center, will include discussions about developing and expanding prevention efforts such as after-school initiatives and the county's tattoo removal program, Connolly said.

Dr. Colin Berry uses a laser to burn off tattoos from 26-year-old Shawn Benner's arm. Former gang members like Benner are finding new beginnings through tattoo removal programs around Virginia. (Robert A. Reeder - The Washington Post)

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In addition, the state attorney general's office is planning to release a 50-page resource guide early next month to help parents connect with gang detectives, after-school clubs and social service programs that help gang members reenter society, said Grizzard, of the gang investigators association.

Grizzard often refers gang members from around the state to Berry, an obstetrician who, as a community service, provides discounted tattoo removals every few weeks to former gang members and others in trouble.

During a recent session observed by a reporter, four former gang members showed up. Two had been in rival gangs in the Richmond area and eyed each other warily as they sat in the waiting room.

Berry likened the removal of tattoos, which are indelible carbon polymers inserted under a transparent layer of skin, to the effect of intense sunlight shining on paintings behind a glass frame. "If you shine a destructive light on that glass, the glass will absorb very little of that light, but it will destroy the ink," he explained.

The procedure is painful because the carbon particles explode and sometimes burn the flesh. It often takes repeated sessions for a tattoo to be fully removed, and even then there can be scarring.

One patient, a 19-year-old from Richmond who had been in a violent gang known as the Bloods for five years, came so he could have "THUG LIFE" removed from just below his knuckles. He said he saw the shallowness of the group while in prison.

The gang's leaders had pressured him into robbing a store, he said. He was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison. No one visited him during those lonely days behind bars. He couldn't even get anyone to pick him up after he finished his term, so he called his mom.

Prison "felt like you are dead for two years," he said. "I realized the only people who love me is my family."

The young man spoke on the condition that his name not be used, because he is afraid of retribution from former gang friends. He said he plans to join the Army, which would not accept him unless he removed his tattoos.

Berry removed a Nazi swastika tattoo from the shoulder of a 22-year-old woman from Williamsburg. She said she joined a skinhead group after she began dating a friend from high school. Initially, she had no idea he belonged to the gang. Lured by the sense of belonging the group offered, she ran away from home to live with the members.

One day, while returning from the grocery, she dropped several bottles of beer. Money was tight and the gang members, furious at the woman's clumsiness, beat her repeatedly over the next few days, she said.

The woman dumped her boyfriend and left the next week.

"I just didn't know what I was getting into," she said, also speaking on condition of anonymity.

Benner had the most elaborate tattoos, including a detailed portrait of his best friend, Joey White, who was shot in the head in front of him in 1997 in Newport News.

Benner, who now works in landscaping and construction, said his boss promised him a $3-an-hour raise if he removed his gang tattoos. But that hardly compared with the pleas of his family. His blue-eyed, 10-year-old daughter has been begging him to leave his gangbanging ways behind.

"She's beautiful, just like her mother," he said. "How can you turn her down?"

As the doctor started using a laser on his tattoo, Benner screeched, "Geeyaaad, that hurts." But he cracked a smile.

It was a cathartic experience, he said afterward, a trial by fire to burn the vestige of his old life away.

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