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March 24, 2017

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Plastic surgeon erases last signs of gang membership — tattoos

Doctor who grew up around gangs in Chicago donates services to better community

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Leila Navidi / Las Vegas Sun

Dr. Julio Garcia receives a standing ovation from the audience after being honored Friday with the Gang Task Force Citizens Service Award from Judge William O. Voy at Fitzgerald’s downtown. Garcia was recognized for providing tattoo removal for young people who want to remove their gang tattoos.

Dr. Julio Garcia

Dr. Julio Garcia is honored Friday with the Gang Task Force Citizens Service Award from Judge William O. Voy at Fitzgerald's downtown. Garcia was recognized for providing tattoo removal for young people who want to remove their gang tattoos. Launch slideshow »

Dr. Julio Garcia knows how powerful gangs can be. The notorious Latin Kings ruled the Chicago neighborhood where he grew up, and when the gang tried to recruit him, his family uprooted and moved to a different part of the city.

So when Garcia, now a Las Vegas plastic surgeon, was approached about donating his tattoo-removal skills to juvenile gang members through the Southern Nevada Community Gang Task Force, he couldn’t say no.

“It hit a chord in my heart,” he said.

Clark County Juvenile Court Judge William O. Voy on Friday presented Garcia an award on behalf of the task force, commending Garcia’s work.

“We are so grateful for your efforts in this area and the lives that you’ve changed,” he said. “Every gang-banger we can change, that’s one life we’ve saved.”

But it’s not just the gang member whose life is bettered, Voy said. Getting youths out of gangs also prevents community members from becoming victims.

The Clark County Board of Commissioners issued a proclamation declaring Jan. 29, 2010, tattoo-removal day in Garcia’s honor.

“We offer it as part of the rehabilitation program,” Garcia said. “In this town, especially, there are so many jobs that you can’t get if you have visible gang tattoos.

“This offers a great opportunity for these kids to get back into the system of normalcy.”

Voy said the average cost — which Garcia waives — of removal runs about $2,000 to $3,000 per tattoo, and many clients referred to Garcia have numerous tattoos removed. So far, he's removed tattoos from more than 100 teens.

“This idea of removing the tattoo is a final stage of conversion,” Voy said. “They got rid of the gang mindset. We put different clothes on them; they don’t talk the way they did; they don’t think they way they did. But there’s one last thing that marks them forever,” he said, calling the tattoo the “last bastion” of their association with the gang.

It takes several sessions — sometimes as many as 10 — to complete the removal process, Garcia said.

“Since it’s a six-month to a yearlong process, you interact with them as they go through their changes and just see these kids open up. It’s really rewarding,” he said. “They see that it’s not the end of the world if they’ve made a mistake and that they can change their lives.”

Gang specialist Jerry Simon, who works for the county juvenile justice department, said when gang members get their first tattoos, it’s usually the proudest moment of their lives. They go from being a nobody to the top of the social ladder, he said.

He gave an example of a teen who gains membership to a gang after being told to fire a gun at a house.

“He considers himself a zero. Then, one day, he jumps out of a car and shoots up a house and everybody loves him,” Simon said. “That night he gets his first tattoo.”

If in the course of shooting up the house, someone is killed, the tattoo becomes even more meaningful. “He gets to put a special symbol to show he committed a murder in the name of the gang,” Simon said.

Simon, the only gang specialist in Clark County, works one-on-one with gang members who go through the juvenile court system to help them transition out of the gang lifestyle.

“We use hearts and minds to reach inside of that child and start remaking him, and once we get in there, we can show them they’re worth a lot more than jumping out of a car shooting up a house,” he said.

Getting a teen to the point where he’s ready to not only leave the gang lifestyle behind but to remove a memento from the proudest day of his life takes a lot of work. Simon calls it the “moment of truth.”

Any number of events can lead to arriving at that moment, he said.

“Sometimes it’s a crisis. Maybe his homey just got shot in the head in front of him last night. That’s a moment of truth. But I’ve lost a lot of them who hadn’t gotten there yet and have gone to their funerals,” he said.

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