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Project Erase: Erasing the past ... one tattoo at a time

Dr. Segal uses a laser to remove ink from Meagan Montanari's hands. “I wanted to go back looking the way that God made me, originally,” she said during a session to remove tattoos across her finger. “I wanted to get rid of all the damage that I had done to it.” (Sean Broderick/KATU)

Outside-In provides health and other services to homeless youth in Portland, but it also helps teens and adults erase the past, or at least the visible signs left behind from drugs or gangs, by removing tattoos with "Project Erase.''

At a small clinic on West Burnside Street, Dr. Lesley Segal uses a $70,000 laser machine to remove tattoos. The process can be painful, but most patients say keeping ink that links them to gangs, drugs, hate or domestic abuse hurts more.

“Ninety-nine percent of the people say, ‘I would rather have a scar than the ink’ -- that's how painful the ink is and how much they want to get it off,” Segal says. “It's not really so much of a cosmetic thing, it's more of a life-changing thing."

Segal says tattoos applied with a tattoo gun are harder to remove than those applied with simple needles and India ink, a popular way in prison.

“The laser sees the ink as globs of pigment beneath the skin and it's able to break that up into smaller pieces,” Segal said. “The ink never fully leaves your body - it goes someplace else and that process takes 6 to 8 weeks.”

For Meagan Montanari, who recently converted to Catholicism, a dozen or so tattoos are a reminder of her spiral into drug abuse. She’s now clean and sober.

“I wanted to go back looking the way that God made me, originally,” she said during a session to remove tattoos across her finger. “I wanted to get rid of all the damage that I had done to it.”

Montanari said she knew she could not afford $200 to $500 for each session at a private clinic. She happened to drive by the West Burnside clinic, saw the sign out front and called.

At Project Erase, the treatments cost anywhere from $25 to $55 based on a sliding fee scale.

Dr. Segal volunteers her time and expertise.

“You go on a journey with somebody to change their life and you can really see the transformation,” Segal said. “I wanted to meet these brave people turning their lives around.

“Between each appointment they can see their tattoo fading and then they come back and we work some more. Their bodies are helping them move that ink away.”

Getting a tattoo removed can take anywhere from 6 to 15 treatments. The clinic had more than 3,300 visits last year. For information, call Project Erase at 503-535-3902, or contact them via email at projecterase@outsidein.org.

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