Dr. Colin Berry's office in Yorktown, Va., offers more than a tattoo removal service. It is where former gang members who are willing to endure a little pain can find redemption.
Shawn Benner, 26, clenched his jaw and yelped while Berry used a laser to burn off two gang tattoos on Benner's right forearm and bicep. Waves of relief washed over his face after he looked at his newly cleansed arm for the first time.
Colin Berry of Yorktown, Va., works to eliminate a tattooed portrait on Shawn Benner. The likeness was of Benner's best friend, who was killed.
(Photos Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
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Benner, of Newport News, said he joined the gang, an offshoot of the Chicago-based Folk Nation, more than a decade ago and has been in and out of prison since then. His criminal record includes assaults, car thefts, drug possession and armed robberies. His best friend was killed in a hail of bullets while Benner stood a few feet away.
Now, Benner said, he has more regrets than he can count.
"Everybody has to grow up at some point," he said. "I'm still young. But everybody I knew [in the gang] is either locked up or dead. Not one of them is gangbanging. . . . It was a waste of my life."
Getting out of gangs is not easy, according to former gang members and law enforcement officials. Many who try to leave say they are risking their lives. Some are forced to relocate to another state with the help of investigators and social workers. But through tattoo removal programs around Virginia, former gangsters are finding new beginnings.
"Some of them don't want to be associated with the gang anymore, but you are branded for life if you have a tattoo on you," said Mindy Grizzard, spokeswoman for the Virginia Gang Investigators Association. "Once it's removed you can relocate, you can hopefully start your identity over."
The removal programs are becoming more popular as officials devise creative ways to address the region's growing gang threat. Fairfax County is hosting a summit meeting on gangs Friday.
The county has offered free tattoo removals since 1999. Clients must be younger than 22 and willing to participate in at least 40 hours of community service, said Edwyna Wingo, nursing supervisor for the county health department. About 90 youths have participated, she said, but they have declined to speak to reporters.
"The stigma of the gangs remained with these youths because they still had tattoos, which put them at risk in the community," Wingo said. "We don't take everyone. . . . We focus on the ones who are ready to commit, [to] take the bull by the horns, so to speak, and say, 'This is not a good life for me. I want to get out.' "
Other than terrorism, no public safety issue has garnered as much attention in the past few years as gang violence. Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) often refers to the problem as the region's "one cloud on the horizon."
From traditional motorcycle groups to machete-wielding Latino bands, gangs are on the rise in Virginia, actively recruiting impressionable young people, according to a report by the FBI's Washington field office. Unlike in the past, when gang activity took place in large cities, today's gangs prefer the suburbs or even rural areas, where there is less competition for territory and where authorities could be less prepared for them.
Ethnic gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, have been found in Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties and in Alexandria, Herndon and Manassas. Gang members even live in the bucolic Shenandoah Valley, according to law enforcement officials. But the FBI says traditional groups such as the Hells Angels, Outlaws and Pagans are also showing up more often on the area's streets -- and police blotters.
Tattoo removal programs are an example of the "holistic approach" that the region needs to take in its fight against these groups, Connolly said. Localities have focused on beefing up their police gang units to respond to the immediate threat. But local governments could do a better job of preventing youths from joining gangs in the first place, or of pulling out those who want to leave, he said.