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Tattoo Ministry Offers a Clean Slate, One Scar at a Time

c. Religion News Service LOS ANGELES _ A tattoo of Korean characters spelling “trouble” snaked down Miles Carrington’s neck. The markings were remnants of a former life, of drugs and alcohol, gangs and jail. They did not belong on the cleaned-up Carrington, a 36-year-old father of two with a respectable job selling stocks and bonds. […]

c. Religion News Service

LOS ANGELES _ A tattoo of Korean characters spelling “trouble” snaked down Miles Carrington’s neck. The markings were remnants of a former life, of drugs and alcohol, gangs and jail. They did not belong on the cleaned-up Carrington, a 36-year-old father of two with a respectable job selling stocks and bonds.

So, on a recent evening, Carrington walked into a run-down white building in Culver City, in west Los Angeles County. He signed in at the front desk and waited in a packed room to erase the physical scars of his past.

Carrington is one of more than 1,000 people who have had their tattoos removed for free by Dr. Steven Popkow, a laser surgeon who eliminates unwanted hair by day and performs “ministry,” as he calls it, by night.

For eight years, Popkow has been giving those who need it most a clean slate. The catch? Before the procedure, patients are required to pray with a Christian pastor. Afterward, they must attend a service at the Culver City Seventh-day Adventist Church, where Popkow is a member.

“Without the prayer, without the focus on Christ, it’d just be a medical service,” Popkow said. While “the laser removes a physical stigma, to truly change _ that comes from a higher source.”

The American Society for Dermatologic Surgery said its doctors removed nearly 55,000 tattoos last year. Popkow is not alone in approaching the matter from a religious perspective. A number of spiritual people have taken to heart the biblical command of Leviticus 19:28: “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you.” Similar free or low-cost tattoo removal programs in Los Angeles were started by a Jesuit priest and a nun.

The Culver City program has treated patients from as far away as Las Vegas and has fielded calls from people in 10 states.

On this evening, Carrington arrived in a crisp, white button-down shirt, olive dress pants and black patent-leather shoes. Jan Kaatz, senior pastor of the Culver City church, summoned him from the waiting area into a small examining room.

“I’m wearing thin,” Carrington said, shaking his head. He had taken a second job and was working 15 hours a day. “I’m feeling like I’m on a treadmill going nowhere.”

Kaatz, a pudgy 45-year-old with glasses and a reddish mustache, asked, “Anything other than strength and endurance we can pray about?”

“Just strength and endurance,” Carrington answered.

They closed their eyes, bowed their heads and prayed.

Then Popkow appeared in his white lab coat. “Ready?” he asked. He led Carrington into another room, where the doctor pulled out his laser gun, aimed it at Carrington’s neck and fired.

Sweat and drops of blood accumulated on Carrington’s skin. “It feels like hot grease,” Carrington said.

The procedure involves an intense light hitting the skin, breaking the ink into tiny particles and causing first- or second-degree burns. The skin blisters and reddens, and an ashen-white film temporarily covers the area where the tattoo used to be. Removal typically takes six treatments. This was Carrington’s third.

The program runs on a small grant from the Pacific Union Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which pays for some paperwork and maintenance on the $80,000 laser. Each treatment costs about $150, Popkow said.

“I definitely lose money in the whole deal, but it’s community service,” he said. Popkow performs the service every month or so in Culver City and Bakersfield, Calif.

Carrington found out about the program, called “Agape Light,” through Popkow’s Web site, http://www.TattooRemoval.org. To qualify for treatment, individuals must have a tattoo that is conspicuous _ on the face, neck or hands, for example. When people sign up online, Kaatz adds them to his e-mail list. Kaatz invited all 350 people on the list to come for treatment this evening. About 25 of them showed.

Kaatz sees the program as an opportunity to evangelize. “Instead of inviting people to hear the gospel,” he said, “I invite them to experience the gospel.” At a special church service for patients in the program, Kaatz asks those who are accepting Jesus for the first time to raise their hands or stand up. He hands out free Bibles in addition to vouchers for follow-up tattoo treatments.

Kaatz said no one ever refused to go to the service, although recently an atheist asked whether he could participate in the program. The pastor told him yes, as long as he went to church.

Before the service at Kaatz’s church, the patients gathered at the church for a $2 dinner of Chinese food takeout. A handful of men from a local halfway house sat together at one table.

Salvador Hinostroza, 36, was among them. He had spent time on the streets and three years in prison. But tonight, he said, he felt “clean,” as if he had “a second chance for a new life.”

Gone were “the old scars, the old battle wounds,” he said, looking at the gauze on his hand where a gang tattoo used to be.

“I see all of us as diamonds in the rough,” he added, turning to his friends, all of whom had been homeless at one time or another. “We’re going to shine without ink.”

KRE/PH END BROWN

Editors: To obtain photos of Popkow, Kaatz and the tattoo removal ministry, go to the RNS Web site at https://religionnews.com. On the lower right, click on “photos,” then search by subject or slug.