Disappearing ink

A tattoo-covered doctor helps ex-cons remove their most scarring legacies

Published December 26, 2012 1:00AM (EST)

Photos by Per Liljas
Photos by Per Liljas

This article originally appeared on Narratively.

Narratively The skin between Dr. David Ores’ shoulder blades is embellished with a colossal tattoo, an “M” and a “D,” etched grandly in the Old English style. Ores, a general practitioner with an office in the East Village, also has, tattooed on his arms, the portraits of eleven different women. One of the women is modeled on a former girlfriend, a famous painter; the rest he found in comic books. On his left shoulder, a blond wearing red cowboy boots and waving a nurse’s cap straddles an oversized syringe. On his right shoulder, twin serpents corkscrew around a winged brunette—a play on the caduceus, mythical symbol of medicine and healing. Ores is fifty-three and strongly built, with pale skin and pudgy cheeks. When seeing patients, he favors a uniform of untied black work boots, cuffed black Dickie pants, and a sleeveless t-shirt printed with the logo of a truck stop or a strip club. These are the clothes in which he feels most comfortable and which he believes will encourage his patients to be most open about what ails them.

A few years ago, Ores bought a giant laser and started charging people to remove their tattoos. The work began as a lucrative sideline to help underwrite services for his low-income clients. A complete erasure can require up to a dozen sessions and cost $3,000. Not long after, one of Dr. Ores’ colleagues asked him for a favor. A friend, a former gang member, was desperate for a job, but the tops of his fingers were tattooed with the words “BABY CRIP,” a deal breaker for most employers. The man wanted the tattoo erased, but couldn’t afford the treatment. Ores volunteered to remove it for free. Soon, Ores was offering his services gratis to any former gang member or inmate with a tattoo on his face, hands or neck—places that couldn’t be easily obscured by clothing. Now, people come to him seeking to change their lives. In canceling out a man’s marks, the doctor is midwife to a new identity.

Dr. Ores removes a tattoo near a patient’s eye

Last spring, a twenty-four-year-old man named Les texted Dr. Ores a picture of his face, asking if he could help. Dr. Ores said yes. A few days later, Les, who lived several states away, where he was on probation, packed up his possessions and moved to Brooklyn to begin his tattoo removal treatment.

Les says he got most of the tattoos on his face in jail. He is physically small—five-foot-seven and less than a hundred and thirty pounds—so at the time, anything he could do to make himself appear more threatening seemed prudent. One tattoo, on his right cheek, says “666.” Another, below his left eye, reads, “HATE.” The space above Les’ lips is emblazoned with “MISANTHROPE,” and the bottom left half of his forehead bears “THE JUDGE”—an homage, he says, to the villain in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, his favorite book. The interstitial spaces are filled in with lines and dots and asterisks. Every piece of real estate is accounted for. Even the skin over his eyelids is marked with two little “x”s. When they first spoke, Dr. Ores warned Les that these tattoos would be especially difficult to remove, as there was a danger of the laser penetrating the membrane over his eyes and melting his retinas. Les said he could live with the x’s.

At that point, Les had been applying to jobs for several months. Thinking honesty was the best policy, he had sent employers a picture of his face along with his applications. He received one interview, which went badly. The call to Dr. Ores had arrived at a spiritual low point.

“It was the first time I’d felt really positive in a long time,” Les tells me a few months later, recalling the first time he spoke to Ores. “I cried.”

*   *   *

In the 1980s, Ores was studying medicine at Columbia and on track to become a surgeon, but he changed his mind. Surgeons, he learned, are expected to wake up early, spend much of their day waiting around until they’re needed, and then devote spare time to Machiavellian political maneuvering. The patients they do see are often heavily anesthetized, making it tough to form meaningful relationships. Instead, Ores found himself drawn to the steady, comparatively social calling of a general practitioner. In an age of hyper-managed care, Ores’ medical practice is defiantly antiquated, like that of an old-world country doctor. He works alone, without a partner or staff. He answers his own phone—“This is Dr. Dave!”—draws his own blood, calls in his own prescriptions, and cleans his own sinks and toilets. When necessary, he makes house calls. Ores’ clientele is composed of rent-stabilized East Villagers, students and the working poor. He charges a flat rate of $125 per office visit, but accepts less from those who say they can’t afford it. His patients pay by cash, credit card or PayPal. Ores does not accept insurance, to which he declares himself a conscientious objector.

Dr. Ores’ tattoo removal services are in wide demand. His program, called “Fresh Start,” is the only one of its kind in the New York area, and one of few like it in the nation. Every week, Ores receives emails and phone calls from tattooed ex-cons all over the country who have found him on the Internet. Few, though, can afford the multiple trips to New York necessary for a full treatment. Most of Ores’ new Fresh Start patients are referred to him by a local network of parole officers, social workers, re-entry counselors, judges and military recruiters. For a time, a battered women’s shelter provided him clients who had tattoos that had been forcibly applied by their boyfriends.

Dr. Ores with a patient

“They’d have tattoos on their neck, their butt, near their vagina, with the guy’s name on it,” Ores told me. “‘Property of Chris,’ “This is mine’–that sort of thing.”

Ores is a devout believer in Fresh Start. As testament to this, the insides of his wrists are tattooed with a series of thick black numbers. On his left wrist are the numbers 0, 1 and 2; on the right wrist 4, 6 and 8. The numerals, fleshy demonstrations of the tattoo removal process, grow progressively fainter as they rise.  The “0” is a regular tattoo. The “1,” somewhat pale, shows the effects of a single treatment. The “2,” paler, shows the effects of two treatments. The “8” is all but invisible. Dr. Ores shows his wrist to new tattoo removal patients to convince them that he knows first-hand what they are in for. Since the program began in 2007, Ores has erased the tattoos of about one hundred patients. He has expunged the names of gangs, cliques, prisons, cities, streets, family members, lovers and the dead, as well as profanities, quotes, oaths, religious insignia, people, animals, insects, weapons, money, tear drops, spider webs, tribal patterns, runes, stars, skulls, dice, hearts, flags and swastikas.

*   *   *

The sun is shining as Les walks up to Dr. Ores’ office to begin his second session with the laser. It’s a Monday morning in May. Outside on the sidewalk, Ores is reclining in a deck chair, smoking a cigar. Saddled up next to him is his motorcycle, a Harley Ultra Glide, the stereo blasting rock music. As Les approaches, wearing a hoodie pulled tight around his face, Ores waves merrily.

“My doctor’s a pimp,” Les murmurs.

Ores folds up his deck chair and the two of them walk inside. Dr. Ores works out of a small, storefront office on a quiet stretch of East 2nd Street. His waiting room is a rotating gallery of local artists, most of whom are patients, and is patrolled by a Maltese with a pink mohawk named Falcor. In the examination room, the doctor spreads a Novocain cream across the left half of Les’ face, then dresses it in bandages and plastic wrap. The treatment has been proceeding slowly. Ores is only treating the tattoos on one half of Les’s face during each visit, to give him time to heal. Les’ skin reacted poorly to the first session. For several days, every pore seemed to be bleeding white pus. Les says it dripped from his face and fell into his cereal during breakfast. His lips swelled up and cracked, and he had trouble keeping food in his mouth. He stayed in his house for most of the next week, sending his roommates out to buy him gauze, Lubriderm, and over-the-counter painkillers.

Ores finishes applying the bandages and tells Les to come back in a couple of hours, when the cream has had time to take effect. Les considers staying in the waiting room for the full two hours. Every since he got out of jail, walking outside makes him feel radioactive. He can sense the eyes of passersby trained on his face like hot rays. In recent months, he has come to find merely walking down the street an emotionally draining ordeal.

“It was my ignorance to think people could look past it,” Les tells me. “In jail, it’s totally cool—a peacock raises his feathers and scares the other animals. Out here, people stare. And, not even in a respectful way. It’s gawking. If I go outside today, I’ll probably get six or seven people asking me, ‘Why’d you do that?’ I say, ‘I just did.’ I try to keep it short.”

When Les speaks, he makes an effort to form sounds with an economy of facial movement. Before the last session, several weeks ago, he says, the dressing had slipped off prior to the treatment and he endured the laser without the benefit of anesthetic.

“I’m a firm believer in the evolution of the individual through pain,” Les says. “But after that, I was having second thoughts.”

The weather is the best New York has to offer, so Les goads himself into walking down the block to a cafe for some tea. Ores stays at the office to see his regular medical patients.

People give Dr. Ores different reasons for having gotten their tattoos, but the motivation for having them erased is nearly always the same: employment. Employers are simply less likely to hire a person with a tattoo, especially one so conspicuous. Nearly all retail and food-service jobs—the positions to which the vast majority of ex-offenders apply when they leave prison—require face-to-face interactions with customers. So, even if an employer has no particular prejudice about tattoos, he might assume that his customers do, and reject tattooed applicants outright. Dr. Ores accepts this reality, although he finds it unfair, even puzzling.

“It’s a funny way to rate people,” he says. “A lot of really evil people didn’t have any tattoos at all. I’ll go out on a limb and say if you add up all the people in the world who do really horrible things, more of them don’t have tattoos than do.”

*   *   *

When Les returns to the office, Ores leads him back to the room with the laser, where he removes the wrap and wipes the cream off Les’ face. He sits Les in a chair and fits him with a pair of what look like pitch-black swimmer’s goggles. Earlier in the morning, Les had shaved off his eyebrows, so the laser wouldn’t cause them to singe or catch fire. The goggles and the lack of any facial hair make him look distinctly alien.

Each laser treatment lasts between ten seconds and a half-hour, depending on the size and complexity of the tattoo. In each case, the process is fundamentally the same. When aimed at the tattoo, the laser causes the ink to explode at the molecular level. After, the body’s white blood cells arrive and gobble up the debris. This takes about four to six weeks. But not all tattoos can be removed. While those created with ink are relatively easy to efface, many tattoos, particularly those etched in prison, are made from other substances. Lacking access to conventional tattoo materials, inmates are forced to improvise their own pigment. Inmates usually do this by placing a flammable substance into a small metal container, like a split soda can. The inmate then burns the substance and catches the smoke on a piece of glass. Afterward, the inmate scrapes the powdery residue off the glass and mixes it with a few drops of shampoo until it has the consistency of ink. Any substance that produces black smoke will do. Dr. Ores has seen tattoos made from paper, cardboard, strips of cotton clothing, leather, Styrofoam, shoe polish, plastic checker pieces, and food. So long as the burned substance is carbon-based, he can probably still erase it. Plastic tattoos, however, are trickier, as the laser can’t break up polymers.

“If it’s plastic, you just have to tattoo over it,” Ores told me. “You fill the word in so it’s solid or you change it. Like, make it say ‘Duck you.’”

Les says his tattoos were applied with a tattoo gun that someone had snuck into the jail. It’s not Ores’ habit to check his patient’s stories. If a person says he was incarcerated, Ores takes him at his word. Nor does not ask what crime the person was charged with or what his plans are for the future. As a habit Ores eschews all questions that are less than absolutely necessary for the patient’s treatment. To do otherwise would be prurient.

The laser, worth about $90,000, resembles a large, clunky handgun. Ores picks it up and tells Les to hold very still.

“Here we go,” he says, holding the gun a few inches from Les’ face.

When Ores activates the laser, the bulky machine to which it is attached emits a series of hard, stuttering clicks. Moving with great care, he begins to trace, freehand, the black lines of the “HATE” tattoo. Les places his hands on his lap. His fingers are gripping the tops of his thighs, the knuckles pressed to the point of almost bursting through the skin.

“Fuck me,” Les says through clenched teeth. “Damn. Fuck me. Fuck me. Holy shit.”

Thirty seconds pass. Ores stops. Les exhales.

“Halfway there,” says Ores.

“I swear to God, I’m not a bitch,” says Les, staring hard at the doctor. “I’m not.”

“I know,” Ores says. “It feels like a blowtorch. Only thirty seconds more.”

“I don’t think the anesthetic took.”

Ores resumes. Les balls his fists. Tears leak from the corner of his eyes, and the muscles in his forearm pop luridly.

“This is fucking me. This is bad.”

“Ten more seconds,” says Ores. “Almost there.”

“Yes, sir. Yes, sir.”

“Alright,” says Ores, switching off the gun. “Enough torture.”

“Dude,” says Les. His head falls into his chest. “I felt that in my teeth. My teeth are throbbing.”

For about a minute he is still. Then he rises from the chair, moving unsteadily. The room smells of cooked meat.

“My whole body is throbbing,” he says. “If there’s a soul, I feel it in my soul.” He wipes his eyes. “But I took it because I’m a fucking monster.”

The left half of Les’ face looks raw and thoroughly sunburnt, like he’d been tanning and fallen asleep on his side. Les holds out an unsteady hand to the doctor and they shake.

“This will probably take about ten, twelve treatments to do everything,” Ores says. “One treatment every six weeks; we’re looking at about a year and a half of work.”

“Two years is nothing,” Les says. “I’m young as fuck.”

Pulling his hoodie gingerly around his head, Les walks out the door and heads for the nearest subway, back to his apartment in Bushwick.

*   *   *

Afew weeks later, Ores’ laser breaks. Les, like several dozen other Fresh Start patients who are in various stages of the removal process, is told that the laser will, with luck, be back up soon. Days turn into weeks, and weeks into months. Ores finds that the laser can not be easily repaired and, at a cost of close to six figures, not immediately replaced. He begins to fundraise to buy a new laser, soliciting money from anyone in a position to care. The process has been slow going, but Ores remains ever optimistic.

The patients continue to wait, tattoos half-vanished like the intermediate numbers on Ores’ wrists. Les stays in a holding pattern in Brooklyn for several months, growing increasingly frustrated. Finally, he emails me, saying that he has decamped for his home state. He says he has been making regular trips back to see his probation officer, as he is not supposed to be out of state. At first, he insists he will return to Brooklyn when the laser is restored, but then, not long ago, he tells me he’s changed his mind.

“I think I am content and have come to some kind of positive acceptance,” he writes in an email.  “I used to think that it would facilitate a positive new lifestyle to get them removed. … Rather than a mark to be ashamed of, I must have had some sort of conviction about them/the situation when it happened to get my face covered. I am almost glad the machine broke.”

I ask him whether, were it possible to do so without 18 months of treatment, he would remove his facial tattoos.

“Would I remove them now if there was no pain?,” he writes. “No. If I had no facial tattoos and I had the opportunity to get all these again on my face, would I do it? No. So that is a bit of a gray area…If anything you can call them ‘Life-scars’ or ‘Battle wounds.’”

When he last emailed me, Les told me he was preparing to leave the country to work on a farm in Central America.

*   *   *

Naturally, I wonder whether Dr. Ores has any regrets about his own tattoos, especially when I learn that his father spent five years in Plaszow, a forced labor camp in Poland. Toward the end of World War II, he was transferred to Dachau, where he was liberated.

I ask Ores whether he ever thought about the relationship between his own tattoos and those of a Holocaust survivor. He smiles.

Dr. Ores displays his own back tattoo

“My dad once said, ‘Why do you have all those tattoos? What’s the use?’ I told him, ‘You’re just jealous because all you got was numbers.’”

I ask Ores if his family has an iconoclastic streak.

“I don’t know what that means,” he says.

“Rebellious,” I say. “Like, someone who does his own thing regardless of what other people do.”

“Sure,” he says. “My family called that ‘thinking.’”

“And this was a big thing in your family?”

“My father,” he says, “always skated on the wrong side of the ice.” He launches into a story from the war.

“One time, my father was standing next to a truck and another man came up to him and told him, ‘Get on the truck.’ And my father refused. He said, ‘No, I’m not getting on the truck.’ And the man said, ‘If you don’t, I’ll kill you right here.’ And the man pulled out a gun and put it to my father’s head. My father didn’t budge. He said, ‘Go ahead, kill me. I don’t care.’ Well, for whatever reason, the guy didn’t kill him. Either the gun didn’t work or the guy just thought ‘Fuck it, why bother?’ Anyway, the truck drove away without my father on it. And then everyone in the truck, about twenty people, were taken to the woods and shot. They dug a ditch and they lined up in front of the ditch and they were executed. And my father wouldn’t get on the truck. ‘No. Fuck you. I’m not getting in the truck. I’m not going to help you kill me.’

“That’s iconoclastic, right?”

Per Liljas is a freelance writer and photographer based in Brooklyn. He spent the past three years reporting for Swedish publications from South Asia. Visit him atwww.perliljas.net.

By Matthew Wolfe

Matthew Wolfe‘s work has appeared in The New York Times, New York, and The Nation. He can be reached at matthew.m.wolfe (at) gmail.com.

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