Monday, November 24, 2014

Ink In, Ink Out

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A one-of-a-kind homeless shelter offers a clean slate to sex-trade victims and other damaged souls.

A machine the size of a small desk whirs and beeps as Dr. Tamir Mosharrafa uses an attached pen-size laser to obliterate parts of a pentagram tattoo on Kenneth Figueroa’s ankle.



“Whoa,” Figueroa says, tense with pain that Mosharrafa, a Phoenix-based plastic surgeon, likens to “getting splattered with bacon grease.” A professional tattoo can be removed in three sessions, he explains, but one applied by an amateur may take up to eight and never fully disappear.

“I got [the tattoo] in juvi [juvenile detention] with pencil shavings and a staple,” Figueroa says.

It’s Friday morning at the Phoenix Dream Center, a six-year-old faith-based nonprofit that provides long-term housing and services to the homeless and troubled. Dozens of residents have taken advantage of the center’s tattoo-removal service, which Mosharrafa provides for a full afternoon once every six weeks.

Ex-banger Figueroa has three problem areas: the pentagram, an upside-down cross on the same ankle, and the word “CRIP” scrawled across his knuckles, an unwanted reminder of his past in the L.A.-based gang. “It would just make me stay on the streets,” Figueroa, 31, says of his tattoos. “I don’t want that life anymore.”

Mosharrafa is one of several local physicians who volunteer their services at the Dream Center. His tattoo-removal program started last spring to help rehabilitate women in The Rescue Project, the center’s program for young female (ages 14 to 26) victims of sexual exploitation, ranging from domestic abuse to kidnapping and forced prostitution. Such women are commonly branded with large tattoos on their necks by their pimps, a crass statement of ownership to which most of them never consent.

“This was the kind of thing I would expect to happen in either, you know, L.A. or even third-world countries, but not right here,” Mosharrafa says.

“We’re working to make a difference with every ounce of breath that I have,” says executive director Brian Steele, a pastor who was recruited to run the center about a year after its opening. He talks with pride as  he walks around campus, stopping almost constantly to say hello to residents.

A former engineer, Steele runs the center like a business, using statistics to formulate treatment models while devising innovative marketing campaigns. It was partly his idea to create a competition in which ten local luxury home designers each created a room for the Rescue Project. “It may seem like the most natural thing for people to want to get out of that life, but there is so much pulling them back, you know – the money, the quasi-fame of it all,” Steele says. “The rooms help us to say, ‘Hey, you’re beautiful, there’s a plan for your life… set that bar high.’”

“How’s your hair?” he asks Rachel, a young woman smiling behind a fiery red coif with blonde streaks. She had it colored at the center’s free salon, but she’s more excited about the tattoo she just had removed.

“To be able to get this done is such a blessing,” she says, turning her wrist to expose a faded death skull. “It’s removing ties and symbols that were part of my old life that I’m trying to be free of.”

DETAILS
Phoenix Dream
Center, 3210 Grand Ave., Phoenix,
602-346-8700, phxdreamcenter.org.

Web Extra:
See Dr. Tamir Mosharrafa remove tattoos at phoenixmag.com/extras

 

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