Some time in the early aughts, he doesn’t remember quite when, Charles Greene melted down black plastic chess pieces, mixed them with liquids to form ink, and tattooed three letters on his right cheek with a needle. A G and two R’s – their spines back to back – memorialize a cousin who helped raise him.
He was incarcerated at the time, and it was one of his first tattoos. Greene soon covered himself with others. But the one on his face became the biggest problem when he got out of jail in October.
“When you go for employment … it’s a bad statement already,” he says. “If you sit down and you have a tattoo on your face, my first instinct is that you’re in a gang, or you’re running wild. It’s not a good look for a company.”
Greene, 49, is the first former inmate to use a free tattoo removal service by East Coast Laser Tattoo Removal in partnership with the Richmond City Sheriff's Office. The Henrico business has offered the service for recently released federal and state prisoners for more than three years, removing tattoos from about 15 former inmates.
Enter Richmond, the city with the third highest tattoo rate per capita. East Coast offers a $10 credit for each hour of community service the probationer puts in. One treatment costs about $100.
Greene lies down for his second laser treatment on Thursday, opaque goggles covering his eyes. “I feel like I’m ... well, I’m not going to say it,” he says grimly.
The laser breaks up ink molecules enough that white blood cells can carry them into the circulatory system. “They kind of act like Pac-Man,” says Chuck Powell, owner of East Coast and a laser tattoo specialist.
“We’re here to help people remove parts of their past, or to move forward,” he says. “Society’s pretty well accepting of tattoos, but professionally it’s kind of an individual business determination.”
A 2013 study in the International Journal of Criminology and Sociology found that visible tattoos on former inmates increase the likelihood of a return to violent crime within three years of release.
“I kept coming in and out jail my whole life basically,” Greene says. “I didn’t have the slightest clue what I was going to do, always going back out there trying to sell drugs.”
He credits sheriff’s office programming with helping him get on his feet and apply for jobs. “I’m sure if I wasn’t in here, I would see y’all somewhere and your first instinct would be, ‘Yes, can I get the police department?’” Greene says, miming a phone call. “I can look kind of crazy sometimes until you get to know me. So I got to get it off.”
Powell estimates that Greene’s removal will take about 10 treatments – a $1,000 value – with about six weeks between each. Not knowing the composition of the ink means the removal can take more treatments. “It’s harder when you’re dealing with a dense product, like with some jailhouse ink,” Powell says.
The pain of removal, which Powell likens to the snap of a rubber band against your skin, is more a factor of the tattoo’s placement. “Under the arms is sensitive, the ribs are sensitive, shoulders not so much. Facial is probably pretty sensitive.”
Greene nods and hums in assent, now with gauze covering his cheek. “It stings,” he says, but no worse than the application of the tattoo.
“If the doc can’t get it off,” he jokes, “then off with my head.”