A Fresh Start with SAY’s Clean Slate Tattoo Removal

A Fresh Start with SAY’s Clean Slate Tattoo Removal

Part of Social Advocates for Youth’s mission is helping young people become job-ready so they can secure gainful employment. As part of our Careers Services department, SAY’s Clean Slate tattoo removal program helps former gang-impacted youth remove their visible gang-related or unwanted tattoos. This critical service dramatically increases employment opportunities for youth and helps them successfully re-engage with their community. However, we couldn’t operate this program without the support of our amazing volunteer nurse, Rosalyn Harvey. Rosalyn operates SAY’s laser machine for tattoo removal and has been volunteering at SAY for six years. This month we were able to sit down with Rosalyn and learn a little bit more about her and why tattoo removal is such a critical service to offer in the community.

SAY: How did you get involved with SAY?

SAY staff presenting a volunteer award to Rosalyn to honor her dedication and service to young people. From left to right: Serene Cooper, SAY’s Director of Career Services; Rosalyn Harvey, volunteer nurse for SAY; and Vera Gutierrez, SAY’s Career Services Specialist.

Rosalyn Harvey: Soon after I became a registered nurse I read a newspaper article about SAY’s Clean Slate tattoo removal program. I had been working with at-risk youth and kids in juvenile hall for a long time, so I thought I could get involved with the program. I called SAY to see if they needed anyone with nursing skills – turns out they had just got a grant to buy their own laser machine for tattoo removal and needed a nurse to operate it. That was in May 2013 and I’ve been volunteering ever since.

Why do you think removing gang-related and unwanted tattoos is so important for young people?

For youth it’s important because we have to remove barriers that are going to keep them from job opportunities. Since I’ve been in the business for a long time now, I don’t just remove gang-related tattoos. I remove tattoos for victims of domestic violence, human trafficking – all different kinds of people. The thing about tattoo removal is you take something that you thought was permanent and you have the opportunity to get rid of that, to let that part of your life go. I don’t think people realize the removal process is really emotional. And there’s so many benefits to tattoo removal, not only emotionally, but for the public as well; it increases public safety by reducing recidivism and violence and increases employment options for people when visible tattoos can block opportunities.

How does the removal process work? Does it take a long time?

The treatment itself it really quick. The laser fires off really quickly and it can be really painful; people liken it to popping rubber bands or bacon grease hitting their skin. A really big tattoo may take longer, but for example a 3×3 inch tattoo may only take 20-30 seconds each session, with multiple sessions spread out over every 4-8 weeks. For most people it takes 10 to 12 treatments to remove one tattoo. But the laser isn’t actually removing the tattoo; it’s breaking down the ink into smaller particles that your body sees as foreign and then your immune system rids the ink from your body.

Rosalyn removing an unwanted hand tattoo from a young person.

Why are you passionate about helping young people remove their unwanted or gang related tattoos?

I was actually incarcerated for most of my adolescence in juvenile hall, and spent time in group homes and youth correctional facilities. So I relate to a lot of young people who are on probation and I can understand the life that they have lived. It was important to me that these kids have someone in their life that has been through what they’ve been through and came out successfully, because I really needed that when I was younger. I was always searching for just one person who grew up like I did and actually made it out. And now I’ve become passionate about tattoo removal, period, because I see how important it is for people to get rid of these tattoos that they thought were permanent. It’s really important for me to give back, especially for young people, and that’s why I’ve been with SAY so long.

Can you tell us a little bit about the nonprofit that you recently started?

I established our program, Unchained from the Cave, in 2018. Tattoo removal can be extremely expensive, and where I’m from in the East Bay there’s really not an affordable option for people. So that’s why I started my program. We’re a nonprofit and we offer low cost and free tattoo removal services for the public. I want to make sure that its affordable for everyone, whether you’re a CEO or janitor, I want everyone to have a second chance to get rid of what they may consider is a mistake and have the opportunity to rid it off their body.

Why did you choose the name “Unchained from the Cave”?

I named it after the Allegory of the Cave, by Plato. In the allegory, there are slaves that were born in a cave. Their feet, hands and necks had always been chained to the cave, making it impossible to turn their heads and see the world outside. Eventually, one of the slaves breaks free and realizes there are people outside the cave and a whole word they didn’t know about. So he goes back to tell the other slaves and they get so angry at him because they are convinced he’s lying.

When I first heard that story I found it relatable because when you grow up in a certain environment for the majority of your life, you don’t know how to break free. Kids that grew up in poverty don’t think automatically think, ‘I’m going to go to college or I’m going to be a doctor.’ We are conditioned by our environment to think a certain way and it’s really hard to break free from these ideas that we grew up with.

Rosalyn removing an unwanted tattoo from a young person.

So that’s why I named my program Unchained from the Cave – because it’s that process of becoming unchained from this empirical knowledge that actually ended up being false. It’s about realizing that you’re bigger than your circumstances and the environment you grew up in.

What advice to you have for young people that might be struggling in their current environment?

Well, I’ve been a public speaker for a lot of schools and I remember one kid asked me, ‘how did you overcome your circumstances?’ and I told him I chose not to be a victim. So my greatest advice to young people is that you are greater than your circumstances. You’re no different than anybody else that was born under a different environment. Some people get to take the elevator and some people have to take the stairs, but we can all get to where we want to go.

Thank you for all you do for our young people and our community, Rosalyn!