Michael Gross, a plastic surgeon, uses a laser to remove a hand tattoo from 25-year-old Mario Velasco, a former gang member, at a clinic in Woodbridge. (Victoria St. Martin/The Washington Post)

When he ran the streets of Manassas Park as a member of the Sur 13 gang, Mario Velasco wore the tattoo on his left hand with pride. He was 16 when he had a set of rosary beads etched into his skin — the beads, long part of the iconography of the Catholic faith, often have special meaning for members of Latin American street gangs.

Now that Velasco is 25 — and nearly eight years removed from the streets — the beads are nothing more than a symbol of a life that he would like to forget. After 26 months of surgery and often painful laser treatments, the tattoo is faded, even if the memories of that life haven’t. Velasco is taking part in a program sponsored by a coalition of groups in Prince William County that are providing free tattoo removal for former gang members.

“It’s a little bit painful, but at the same time it’s a good feeling because you’re getting rid of something that’s caused problems for you,” Velasco, who works as a truck driver, said during a recent treatment at the Greater Prince William Community Health Center in Woodbridge. “When I go out, other guys see it, they’re like, ‘Oh, where are you from?’ . . . It’s a good feeling to know that it’s going away.”

That good feeling is an important part of why several organizations — including the county’s gang intervention team — started the removal program in 2007. Rich Buchholz, the coordinator for the intervention group, got the idea for the program after receiving calls from former gang members trying to turn their lives around. They were looking for a way to remove the parts of their pasts that were preserved in ink.

And, to hear Buchholz tell it, removing a tattoo can be as much of a practical step as a symbolic one.

Plastic surgeon Michael Gross has started volunteering at a monthly clinic in Woodbridge, Va., for a Prince William County program that offers free tattoo removal services to those who have exited gang life. (Victoria St. Martin/The Washington Post)

“If they don’t get it off, it’s going to be with them the rest of their lives,” he said. “Their kids are going to ask about it, they may not be able to get employment, it could put them in danger; if they’ve got a tattoo of one gang and they’re in the mall and a rival gang sees that tattoo and throws a gang sign at them, they may come after the guy.”

The removal program, called Make A Change, is funded by private donations and grants. It provides removal services (with a small co-pay) for former gang members in exchange for about 50 hours of community service.

So far, the program has helped about 40 former gang members. Depending on the color and complexity of a tattoo’s design, it could take multiple sessions to be removed. It’s a process that Velasco says is welcome and necessary, but also not without its share of pain.

“It hurts three times more than getting a tattoo,” he said. “Have you ever been cut? Imagine just getting cut on your wrist and all around your hand.”

During his treatment sessions, Velasco and a physician don protective goggles while the laser is applied to the remnants of the tattoo on his wrist. The pulse of the laser sounds almost like whirring helicopter blades as it does its work. During the five-minute sessions, Velasco grips a baseball tightly to steel himself against the pain.

Still, former gang members, their friends and relatives are lining up to take part in the program.

Bridgett Rodas, a former girlfriend of a gang member, has 13 tattoos — she was just 12 when she got her first. She is having all of them removed through the program.

“It is painful, but if you’re able to get them on, you’re definitely able to get them off,” said Rodas, 26, who noted that she is feeling more confident in her job as a medical assistant as the tattoos have been removed. “For someone who wants that new beginning and to close that whole chapter in her life, this is definitely the way to go.”

Rodas said that she uses her bandaged former tattoos as a visual lesson to other young people who might be considering a life on the streets.

“Walk away while you still can,” she said she tells young girls.

Kejuan Seeger can relate to what Rodas is saying. He wasn’t in a gang, but he ran with different neighborhood crews selling drugs and living on the streets. He’s had tear drop tattoos on his face removed, as well as two others on either side of his neck.

Nine years ago, after contemplating suicide, he decided to change his life. He moved closer to the church and now encourages others to devote their lives to God and find solace in their faith instead of the kinship many find in gangs.

“All people have the need of being accepted and loved,” he said. Gangs “offer you a sense of family, a sense of love and a sense of identity; that’s the tricky part about it. That’s why people are willing to do the extreme to receive that acceptance and love. It has a good concept, but it turns into evil because you have people violating the law.”

Russell Sobel, a professor at The Citadel who studies gangs, said that acceptance is a powerful lure and that the tattoos are a visible reflection of it.

“Why people get those markings to begin with is important,” he said, noting that many young people join gangs for the sense of safety they provide in a violent environment. “It’s like putting an ADT security sign on your yard.It’s like saying your home is protected, and if you’re messing with me, you’re messing with more than just me.”

Continuing the metaphor, Sobel said that the removal programs are most effective when gang members no longer feel the need to have that sign on their lawn.

“People are going to keep that tattoo as long as they have the need to demonstrate their membership in a gang,” he said. “They do that to reduce the likelihood that someone is going to harm them. The fundamental question is are they going to be willing to” remove it?

For Velasco, the answer is yes. He wants to join the National Guard, and his recruiter won’t allow him to enlist until the hand tattoo is removed.

“It’s exciting,” he said with a slight smile before a recent treatment. “It’s me getting rid of my past.”