Laser removal hate tatoos
Photo from the Associated Press

TBryon Widner wore his history of hate on his face. A white supremacist, he had tattooed much of his body, including his face, with symbols of the movement. But after falling in love and marrying Julie, a fellow white power leader, they both began to put their hate-filled pasts behind them. They had a baby and her children from a former relationship embraced Bruce as their father.

The only problem was that Bruce had trouble getting a job because of the way he looked.  With “HATE” tattooed on his knuckles, swastikas, bloody razors, thunderbolts, and skulls on his body and face, he was a pretty menacing sight. No one wanted to hire him.  Desperate, he considered obliterating the tattoos with acid. Instead, his wife Julie reached out to Daryle Lamont Jenkins who runs Philadelphia-based One People’s Project, an anti-hate group. Ironically, Daryle is a black man, part of a racial group reviled by Bryon and Julie in their white supremacist days.

Daryle put them in touch with T.J. Leyden, a reformed neo-Nazi skinhead Marine who now promotes tolerance. Leyden connected them with the Southern Poverty Law Center. The SPLC helped search for a philanthropist willing to pay for Bryon’s tattoo removal. An anonymous donor agreed to pay for the ~$35,000 worth of laser surgeries provided that Bryon would get his GED, counseling, and pursue a college education or trade. Of course, he agreed. He wanted to do all of these things anyway.


Laser surgery

After almost a year of looking for the right surgeon, Bryon was scheduled for laser surgery with Dr. Bruce Shack, chair of the Department of Plastic Surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. It was June of 2009. It eventually took 16 months and 25 surgeries to remove the last vestiges of Bryon’s past history of hate. Bryon endured a lot of pain and public humiliation to atone for the hurt he had inflicted as a result of his prior extreme intolerance.

After completing the tortuous course of tattoo removal, Bryan eventually found construction work and work at a local tattoo parlor in order to support his family. He also got his GED and is planning to start courses at a local community college. It is hard to say what would have happened to Byron if laser tattoo removal didn’t exist, but I think it is safe to say that it probably would not have been such a happy ending.



Pre-laser tattoo removal

According to Wikipedia, “pre-laser tattoo removal methods include dermabrasion, salabrasion (scrubbing the skin with salt), cryosurgery and excision which is sometimes still used along with skin grafts for larger tattoos. Some early forms of tattoo removal included the injection or application of wine, lime, garlic or pigeon excrement.” Compared to these, laser removal is both more effective and much less icky.

The gold standard is Q-switched lasers of different wavelengths that react with the dye in the tattoo and break it down. It is then either absorbed by the body and eventually excreted or it is soughed as the skin peels after the laser treatment. The result is that the tattoo slowly fades as shown in the pictures of Bryan at the beginning of the article.

Side effects include sunburn appearance and sensation after treatment, hyper- or hypo-pigmentation, occasional darkening of the tattoo (particularly for tattoos that light colors such as white, peach, or light brown) and scarring due to burns. All can be minimized by careful treatment and good post-treatment care.

The cost of the laser treatment can be significant.  In Bryon’s case, more than $35,000.  Although I have not seen a study to support this, I would bet that the return on investment, amortized of a lifetime of good jobs, is well worth the price.


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