Dawn Maestas, a tattoo removal specialist in Albuquerque, has dedicated part of her business – and her life – to helping those with barriers to employment and women who have been abused erase permanent reminders of their past. NPR publicized her story in late March, when it broadcast her discussion with a client, whose former abusive boyfriend had his name forcibly tattooed all over her body. The conversation was part of Story Corps, an oral history project that has recorded the stories of more than 90,000 ordinary – and not so ordinary people – across the U.S.
A victim of domestic violence since childhood, Maestas broke away from her own abusive relationship at age 28. After 10 years of trying to, as she says it, “get her head straight,” she studied to be an aesthetician. Just before she took her board exams, she saw a TV program about laser removal, immediately signed up for a class and has been doing it ever since.
Maestas knows well the reaction by others to people who have tattoos. She herself has a full-bleed that goes all the way down her arm.
“I keep telling the prison system that they (ex-offenders) can get job training and do whatever, but the minute they open that door (to meet with a potential employer) they’re in big trouble,” Maestas says. That first impression of a visible tattoo can negate anything positive the applicant has to offer.
And businesses seem to be creating even more restrictions regarding tattoos. “The military in particular is getting very strict about it. Also, businesses that allowed tattoos before are now giving their employees x amount of time to remove their tattoos,” she says.
But, of course, the worst tattoos as far as potential employers are concerned are those that indicate gang affiliations or criminal activity. “One of the most influential tattoos is the tear drop under the eye. It usually means that you’ve taken a life,” Maestas says. “That itty-bitty tattoo is just the size of the end of an eraser, but when you walk into apply for a job they might think they’re hiring a murderer, even though it can mean a lot of other stuff.”
Maestas is determined to help a few people who may not have the sufficient finances to take off those tear drops and other tattoos by offering her services pro bono to some of her clients in what she calls her Clean Slate Program.
It’s offered to the first 10 people who call on the second Tuesday of each month. They will get an appointment for a free tattoo removal on the following Saturday. Although it’s pretty much first-come, first-served, Maestas says she does some weeding out, and the tattoos must be from neck up or wrist down.
Because she is associated with a nonprofit, she also offers other nonprofits a chance to sponsor people within their organizations to get their tattoos removed. They usually do this by fundraising through events like bake sales and car washes, she says.
In order to reach more people with her tattoo removal service, she plans to soon launch a mobile unit that will travel throughout rural areas of New Mexico. She’s also been appointed a national trainer for the company she purchased her laser equipment from, and is involved in a documentary film that teaches financial responsibility and independence to women who have been victims of domestic violence.