Is it time to hit the road with a mobile tattoo removal program?
A serious demand for the removal of anti-social and gang-related tattoos is not being met.
Free or low-cost tattoo removal needs to be made more available to those in reentry or leaving gangs, so they can start a new life. Many desiring the treatment do not know about existing community-based tattoo removal programs. For others, these programs are too far away, not accessible, or non-existent in their community or even anywhere in their state.
Getting anti-social or gang-related tattoos removed improves employment prospects and allows people to become better role models for their children. It also can offer transformation, healing and even salvation, and be the catalyst for prosocial change, insuring that fewer people will reoffend and return to prison. On his American Voices Sirius/XM Satellite Radio show, Senator Bill Bradley recently interviewed our founder Mark Drevno, who discussed some of the benefits of tattoo removal.
The solution: Take tattoo removal to the communities that need it most
Many counties and nonprofits throughout the United States deliver preventive healthcare to vulnerable and remote populations via mobile clinics. Tattoo removal can be delivered in a similar way, but in community spaces or smaller vehicles, and at a fraction of the cost and less effort than a larger mobile healthcare clinic. Venues could be family resource centers, churches, local health centers or other community places.
Mobile tattoo removal programs can also be offered inside jails and prisons. This allows incarcerated people a head start, especially those nearing release, preparing them to be ready to look for employment and start a new life.
Additionally, offering immigration detainees the opportunity to have their tattoos removed prior to deportation eliminates the possibility of incarceration or even worse yet, death, once they arrive in their native countries.
Interested in starting a free or low-cost tattoo removal program?
If you are a nonprofit working with people in reentry or those leaving gangs, and are serious about starting a free or low-cost community-based program, feel free to contact us for a complimentary copy of our second book, Tattoo Removal: Establishing a Free or Low-Cost Community-Based Program, A How-to Guide.
This only-one-of-its-kind how-to guide is the go-to reference for nonprofits, medical professionals, technicians, tattoo artists and anyone else who would like to create a free or low-cost tattoo removal program. It includes everything from how to decide the best service delivery model to follow and case studies of successful programs to directories of laser device suppliers and rental companies and schools that teach tattoo removal and suggestions on how to raise money to fund a program. It also includes the Jails to Jobs national directory of more than 250 free and low-cost tattoo removal programs in 43 states. (Our most current directory is maintained on our website.) This how-to guide also provides valuable information to those who want to start or improve a for-profit tattoo removal business.
Surveyed existing programs for mobile best practices
Our research started by attempting to survey all the existing mobile tattoo removal programs we could find on the internet – 10 in the U.S., 11 in the UK and one in Canada. We tried to contact each of them by email and telephone, in some cases numerous times. After several weeks, we were only able to contact a total of nine, five in the US and four in the UK.
Even after telling them that we are a nonprofit organization offering tattoo removal outreach and program development, three of the four mobile tattoo removal programs in U.S. were reluctant to answer our questions and offered very little or no information. It seemed they looked at us as competition and didn’t want to provide any help or advice. Those in the UK were much more open to sharing.
The person we spoke to at one U.S. program offered to provide answers to our questions but only if we paid them a consulting fee, since they said they spent a lot of time figuring out how to put their rig together. Another offered to take care of our clients if we paid them to do so but did not want to answer our questions. The comments and reception we received reinforced the importance of our research and how this article should help many get a head start in establishing a mobile program. It also reminded us how a nonprofit could use their tattoo removal program as a social enterprise generating revenue by marketing their services to the general public at market rates to support their pro bono tattoo removal program.
Charging market rates to the general public could help to support pro bono offering
The tattoo removal market is a rapidly-growing industry. Astanza Laser’s guidelines for tattoo removal pricing are consistent with the market rate. Quanta Aesthetic Laser’s tattoo removal business guide states that $1,000 per hour or $200 per treatment are conservative figures. Those rates or even discounted market rate prices could be charged to non-program clients who want to get their tattoos removed and can afford the going rate. The income generated could help support a nonprofit’s community-based pro bono program and possibly generate income for other programs. Market rate customers could also offer valuable social media awareness and word-of-mouth advertising. A social enterprise component should add additional newsworthiness to the program, while offering people who can afford it the satisfaction of helping those who can’t.
Who can operate a tattoo removal laser? Is a mobile program okay in my state?
The vast majority of states do not require a medical credential to operate a laser, although special training is required and a physician medical director usually needs to be affiliated with the program. Always check the regulations for your state to be sure what the requirements are and whether it is legal to operate a mobile tattoo removal program.
And be sure to consult the United States Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) website regarding laser hazards and safety measures and how to be in compliance. Pay particular attention to eye safety and make sure all windows of the vehicle or the facility where the procedures will be performed are covered to protect from escaping laser beams that are below the acceptable ocular MPE (maximum permissible exposure) level.
Where can we purchase a laser for tattoo removal?
It is always less expensive to buy a laser directly from a laser provider than a specialty vehicle company.
Astanza Laser is one laser device company that offers substantial discounts and other benefits to organizations providing tattoo removal to those who have been previously incarcerated, formerly gang-involved or victims of human trafficking. Contact them directly for details on how their program works.
Most laser device companies should be caring and philanthropic in nature and be open to offering significant discounts to community-based programs and nonprofits. Remember to always ask about what is available.
A list of laser device companies that sell and rent new and used equipment can be found in our how-to guide.
Options that deliver your services where they’re most needed
With a variety of mobile delivery options, you have the ability to operate a tattoo removal program that is ideal for your organization, no matter its size and resources.
Pop-up tattoo removal model
Organizations that would like to establish a mobile program but can’t afford to buy their own rig or equipment can consider what we call the pop-up model, the least expensive option.
The pop-up tattoo removal program model is similar to a pop-up restaurant or pop-up shop that appears for a brief time – or sometimes on a regular schedule – in a space that at other times may be used for something else. These programs can be offered regularly at a hospital, school, church, club or government building.
With this model a laser device is typically rented. The laser machine is brought by a technician who stays onsite to ensure the device runs properly. You’ll need to recruit a volunteer, medically credentialed or not based on your state regulations (see who can operate a laser), to perform the procedure.
Professional liability insurance – something your volunteer performing the procedure should carry, don’t forget to verify – is required. Always check with your insurance broker to be sure your organization and vehicle equipment are covered with the proper insurance.
Team up with the local county or hospital mobile health clinic
Nonprofits might want to team up with their county health department or other local medical organization, if they operate a mobile health care program. There are an estimated 2,000 of these programs across the U.S. Mobile Health Map offers details on 700 of them.
If these organizations do not have an appropriate laser available for tattoo removal, you will need to rent a machine and find a suitable volunteer to operate the device. Be sure to check with the laser device rental company for the machine’s electrical requirements and then make sure that the vehicle can support what is needed.
The IRS requires nonprofit hospitals to allocate a portion of their budget to improve the health of the communities in which they serve. Fulfilling these community benefit requirements can come in the form of grants, sponsorships, in-kind donations and charitable contributions. A community-based tattoo removal program might be an ideal way for hospitals to fulfill this government requirement.
Modest vehicle, used high-roof van or used minibus, with owned or rented laser
A used high-roof van or converted used minibus allows you to perform tattoo removals anywhere a power source is available or from a mobile generator, using a rented or purchased laser. Removing the standard seating and adding what is needed for tattoo removal should be straightforward. We estimate that going this route would cost half as much or less than a new high-roof converted van.
If an outside power source is not available, the laser will need a generator that can be purchased or rented. Most tattoo removal lasers require 220 volts, but contact your laser provider to make sure.
DIY with a used rental company vehicle, ambulance conversion or motorhome
Perhaps consider purchasing a used U-Haul, Enterprise vehicle, ambulance or motorhome to run your program. It is important that you know what kind of laser you wish to use in your vehicle prior to its buildout.
Jesus Bujanda of TattooEmergency911 converted an ambulance into a tattoo removal shop. It’s possible to buy a retired ambulance with relatively low mileage. He told us, “Some ambulances from rural areas aren’t used that much, so they might retire them at 30,000 miles or up to 100,000 miles, and they’re very well maintained.” You may find a dealer for one of these used ambulances by searching online for “used ambulance dealers.”
Chris Baker and the church community of Ink 180 Mobile Tattoo Removal came together to convert an RV into a mobile tattoo removal vehicle. The idea for the mobile unit came about during a meeting between Baker and the Illinois Health Department to discuss a new facility for his tattoo business. Department officials suggested a mobile unit. Although a good idea, it was something Baker thought might happen in the distant future. But thanks to the donation of an RV not too long afterwards, his organization was able to begin its mobile unit. Word spread, and soon Baker had received two more vehicles – retired ambulances. He and a group of volunteers go throughout the inner city of Chicago on a weekly basis and have also visited Detroit, Kansas City and Indianapolis.
As a do-it yourselfer, Baker suggests that $8,000-$10,000+ be budgeted for a vehicle and $5,000-$6,000 the buildout. He also recommends fundraising to purchase needed supplies and to get the word out about your program. The publicity can often lead to getting gifts of individual parts, equipment or even a vehicle. Baker put the rig together himself with volunteers through the local church.
Specialty medical high-roof van, trailer or RV
There are a number of specialty vehicle companies across the country that specialize in creating mobile medical units. Our hunt for specialty vehicle companies began by searching vehicle buildout association directories. We figured this option would provide us with a sizeable list of businesses to potentially work with. However, our most effective tool turned out to be the internet, which we searched by using “specialty vehicles and van conversions mobile doctor’s office.”
This method turned up 20 specialty vehicle companies around the country. Of these, 15 appeared to offer vehicles and buildouts that fit with tattoo removal services. We reached out to all 15, heard back from 10 and worked with each extensively to create drawings and budgets for basic tattoo removal vehicles. Ultimately, nine of the 10 provided us with a proposal.
We have included the information we received from five of those specialty vehicle companies we felt were most suitable to consider, based on vehicle size and variety, buildout design and pricing. Each proposal includes concept drawings, buildout details and pricing. The proposals that were excluded were significantly higher in price and more than what is really needed.
We are not endorsing any one over the other and encourage those seriously considering a mobile program to look further to determine the best match for the specialty vehicle company, vehicle and buildouts that would work best for your organization and budget. Unless included in the quote, delivery, taxes and other fees may apply.
Most of the proposals we received included vehicles provided by the specialty vehicle company. However, each company gave us the option of providing our own vehicle, which we believe could possibly allow for additional price savings, by being able to negotiate directly with the dealer or even provide a used vehicle for conversion.
If you decide to provide the specialty vehicle company with the vehicle, it is important that they have the details of the vehicle you are considering and knowledge of how the vehicle is equipped. You also need to confirm that they will modify that vehicle to your specifications before you actually purchase it.
Each van proposal we received was quoted using either a high-roof Mercedes Sprinter or a high-roof Ford Transit. At 15 feet of usable floor length and 18 mpg diesel, the Mercedes Sprinter vans are the longest vans on the market compared to the gas Ford Transit, with 13.5 feet of usable floor length and 12 mpg.
Quality Vans, operating since 1974 and located in Tempe, Ariz., quoted us $104,400 using the Mercedes Sprinter van, including the buildouts. This breaks down to $50,000 for a new Mercedes Sprinter van, and $54,000 for vehicle conversion. This includes the $6,000 cost to equip the vehicle with a wheelchair lift, which would be used to move the laser in and out of it. A significantly less expensive option for moving the laser in and out of the rig would be to use a foldable aluminum ramp at a cost of several hundred dollars or less. At $83,400 they offered the alternative option of a Ford Transit van. These costs include $36,000 for the vehicle and $47,400 for vehicle conversion. This does not include the price of a wheelchair lift, as the Ford Transit van lacks the space to accommodate it.
It is our understanding that Removery bought their Mercedes Sprinter from Quality Vans. The van they acquired was originally built-out by Quality Vans and used for medical imaging. After a few years of use, the vehicle was sold back to Quality Vans. Removery then purchased the vehicle and worked with Quality Vans to re-convert the van to fit their needs. Changes they made included removing the lead in the walls and taking out an additional wall, which originally cut the workspace of the van in half. Watching for and being able to take advantage of cancelled orders and trade-in vehicles is another example of how to save money.
ADI Mobile Health, located in Tualatin, Ore., has provided mobile health clinics to doctors, dentists, universities, corporations, nonprofits and many other organizations all over the world since 1984. After numerous conversations and brainstorming sessions, they provided us with these blueprints using a Winnebago Fuse and a Ford Transit. We were quoted $150,415 for a used 24’ 2017 Winnebago Fuse 423S with a diesel engine, and $107,950 for a 22’ 2018 Ford Transit with a 3.2L I-5 Power Stroke Turbo diesel engine. Both of these costs include a $915 delivery fee. At $5,000 less, you can get the same Ford Transit van, but with a 3.7L Ti-VCT V6 gas engine. It is important to be careful reading which items are included as standard and which are options. As an example, ADI includes standard front air conditioning but lacks rear air conditioning. They can install rear air conditioning at an additional cost.
CGS Premier, located in Muskego, Wis., has offered custom fabrication experiences, allowing their clients the ability to create unique specialty vehicles, for the past 25 years. They quoted us $59,300 for vehicle conversion, not including the cost of the van. Vehicle conversion costs include resurfacing the walls, ceiling, and floors; installing seating, cabinets, and a workspace, electrical systems, a freezer, and the client’s chair and technician’s stool. If the specialty vehicle company allows, providing some of the items for installation can save costs. CGS Premier offered us the option of providing our own medspa or other chair. By purchasing our own $500 chair and getting it to them for installation, we are able to save $1,500 to $2,000 or more for the chair they specified. This can potentially also be done with refrigerators, freezers and other items. When we asked for our logo and website information to be displayed on the outside of the vehicle as a graphic, an additional $4,209 was added to our quote, bringing the total cost of conversion to $63,509 (not including the cost of the van). There are many vehicle custom wrapping companies that could likely do it for less, another possible way of saving on the total cost.
La Boit Specialty Vehicles Inc. offered an alternative option: a trailer. Located in Gahanna, Ohio, and family owned and operated since 1981, they specialize in the customization of trailers and RVs. We were quoted $90,000-$110,000 for these professionally built out trailers. This price includes the cost of the trailer, and the price of conversion.
Used and less fancy can save a lot of money
Buying a used vehicle and using more modest, non-medical specific buildout may cut your cost in half or even less compared to new options. One example is a medical grade chair which can cost $2,000 to $3,000 or more, while a similar and perfectly suitable chair not provided by the specialty vehicle company is around $500. CGS Premier gave us the option to provide our own chair, and they would install it.
Some other cost-changing factors include installing a room divider, awning, wheelchair lift, access from the rear of vehicle, bathroom, TV or stereo system. Additional design costs, such as wrapping the outside of the vehicle with your logo and information, allow for community outreach about the program and other services your organization offers every time you hit the road.
Besides new options, specialty vehicle companies frequently have used inventory they’ve taken on trade-in that may fit your needs. Be sure to ask.
Used Mobile Clinics, located in Denver, Colo., sells used and some refurbished mobile clinics. Purchasing a used mobile clinic cuts out the cost of a total buildout, though you will still need to obtain and install a tattoo removal laser and be sure the existing generator can power it. In addition to saving you money, this option saves you time, as most custom buildouts, depending on the scope of work and the size of the vehicle, can take two to six months to complete.
Make the most of your budget; ask for better pricing on vehicle and any buildouts
Just as one might negotiate the cost of a car or any large purchase, it is important to negotiate the price of the vehicle, as well as buildout costs. All prices included in this article are from the initial statements of work we received. They have not been negotiated, and we expect that they would likely be lowered if negotiated.
Occasionally people cancel their custom build orders, and specialty vehicle companies are left with inventory they can sell to you at a discounted price, allowing another way to save money.
And if you are a nonprofit organization, always remember to be sure to ask for the nonprofit discount. There is also special government vehicle and buildout pricing, and we encourage you inquire about these deals and any others that exist. Because you’re operating a nonprofit program, you should be able to negotiate a price that is less than usual.
How is a laser device secured in the vehicle?
It is critical that the laser device, which typically weighs 150 to 300 lbs., be correctly secured in the vehicle. This is to ensure the laser will not get damaged in transit or otherwise, and maintenance costs should then remain in line with what is considered normal and customary. Each of the quotations includes the cost of securing the laser properly and safely while the vehicle is in transit and when it is in use.
CGS Premier proposed using a “pan” system to hold the laser in place during transit. This system consists of a bolted-in rectangular pan with one short side against the vehicle wall and the other exposed in the workspace. The exposed short side has the ability to fold down for the laser to roll into the pan, and can then be lifted and locked into place. The pan serves as a curb and cradles the wheels to keep them from moving. Additionally, the wheels should be able to lock and not move, and the casters should be of the type that lock. Besides the recessed pan type floor, the laser should be held in place by the opposing sides of the countertop and or tie-down straps as additional restraint, positioning the laser against a padded wall and/or wrapped in a moving blanket.
Quality Vans suggests inserting a belted tie-down system to the top and bottom of the laser. ADI Mobile Health created a bungee cord system, which locks to the walls around the laser. If the laser has wheels on the bottom, they suggested inserting a bolted lock-in system to hold the wheels in place, like they have done for dental chairs.
La Boit Specialty Vehicles Inc. told us they would collaborate with their team of engineers to create a custom strapping system that would specifically accommodate the laser of our choice with the surface area of the space it would fit into in the vehicle, while still allowing us the ability to move the laser in and out of the trailer. They guaranteed to take full responsibility for making sure all items in the trailer, including the laser device, would be safely secured into place through careful execution by their engineering department.
For laser devices that are transported in the vehicle but not operated inside the vehicle, cushioned crates, tie-downs, and a three-point restraint system are the most commonly used forms of securing a laser while in transit. Wrapping the machine in a moving blanket is also recommended. Many people convert the crates and boxes that the lasers originally arrived in to permanent laser storage. These boxes are already the ideal size for the specific laser, and adding additional cushioning and securing it to the vehicle wall makes for easy laser transit and storage.
Another method for transporting a laser that is not operated inside the vehicle is to create a two-sided cradle out of 2 in. x 4 in. lumber covered in carpet for padding, along with a track rail and ratchet tie-down system (Uline is one source). The cradle is secured and fitted into the left side wall and floor using the same track system. The laser inside its factory padded cover is moved into the cradle and secured using the ratchet tie-down and rail system.
To prevent the mirrors from getting out of alignment and altering the energy of the laser, the laser arm piece is removed and placed in a padded carrying case. That case can be the one that originally came with the laser or a rifle gun case with the interior foam custom cut to hold and secure the laser arm. Mycasebuilder.com is one example for custom foam and cases. The case for the laser arm can also be secured using the same rail and ratchet tie-downs.
To transport their lasers, The Laser Agent uses Ford Transits which contain walls that are foamed-in and have a strap system. Take extra precautions — any precaution you can think of – to make sure the laser is secure.
A couple of mobile programs we surveyed suggested having someone involved in the design process who has actually operated a laser. Lasers in constant transit may need additional calibration, making it important to have someone with a lot of experience with lasers be a part of vehicle conversion project.
Other than the laser, what needs to be secured?
Anything that is not attached and secure. The stool can be strapped to the wall, the chair, or under a counter area. The procedure chair can be bolted to the floor, or placed in a corner and secured to the walls. Be sure any drawers and cabinets are securely closed during transit as well.
How is the laser device moved in and out of rig?
In most cases for security reasons the laser device will likely be moved out of the rig when the program is not in operation. With weights of 150 to 300 lbs. per laser, a wheelchair lift or an aluminum convertible loading ramp is the way to do it. The cost of a wheelchair lift can add an additional $6,000 or more to your custom build but we have been told that the Ford Transit lacks the space for a wheelchair lift. A significantly less expensive option for moving the laser in and out of the rig is a foldable aluminum ramp at a cost of a few hundred dollars. These loading ramps are collapsible, and can easily be stored inside the vehicle or in a garage.
Check with your laser device company to make sure a mobile service does not void its warranty
For organizations that want to acquire their own laser, it is a good idea to check with the laser device company first regarding any possible warranty restrictions that a mobile operation might cause.
We do know from Nick Bergman, the director of Quanta’s Quantacares program, that using one of their lasers in a mobile operation will not void their warranty. Bergman said their machines come with a one-year service contract, and they also offer service contracts beyond the first year. An option we see as viable and many times less expensive than buying a service contract beyond that which is automatically included by the laser device company, is to establish a $5,000 rainy day fund for possible future maintenance issues and replenish the fund as needed. It is important to review any contract thoroughly and speak with an attorney as needed.
We also know from speaking with David Murrell, CEO of Astanza Laser that they have a special warranty program for lasers that are used in a mobile environment. Murrell said that their warranty program is more comprehensive than many to begin with, and it’s always a good idea to review and compare warranties as one of the steps before making a final decision on a purchase.
From our research we are aware of an existing mobile tattoo removal program that uses a Cynosure RevLite SI, which is presumably another laser device with a mobile friendly warranty.
Other things to consider
Diesel or gas? Diesel can be more efficient than gas when considering the weight of the vehicle. Additionally, both the vehicle and the generator will be running off of the same fuel source, and diesel may best fulfill this need. ADI Mobile Health provides an informative comparison sheet of the two.
As shared before, it is important to know what kind of laser you wish to use in your vehicle prior to its buildout. The vehicle will need a generator that can support its voltage, while still running the lights, air-conditioning, etc. To make sure you get the correct power source, we advise having your custom buildout company contact your laser provider for the information.
It is important to have the option of a fan available during the tattoo removal process. The laser on skin and ink can create an odor, and a small workspace can become stuffy. Installing a ceiling fan or using another kind of a fan or suitable ventilation is important as you perform your services.
A small amount of storage is needed for Emla numbing cream, saran wrap (to hold the numbing cream in place on the tattoo area for one hour prior to laser treatment), anti-bacterial and alcohol wipes, paper towels, aloe vera and gloves.
With the availability of medical apps for electronic medical records, you have the option of recording client information on a tablet or laptop. This removes the need to store physical files, although paper files are still commonly used and are an acceptable practice. Review your proposed use of medical records with your medical director or other appropriate resource.
It is possible to create a mobile tattoo removal program on different size budgets
When we started this research project, we thought a brand new specialty high-roof van or trailer would likely be the go-to solution to create a mobile tattoo removal program. However, after completing the research and reviewing our findings, it is clear now that there is more than one way to operate a successful mobile program accommodating different sized budgets.
We are hopeful that the information included in this article will save those serious about creating a mobile program time and money, and generate better overall outcomes. Ultimately, we hope we have been able to provide the insights and resources needed to promote the creation of more mobile tattoo removal programs serving previously incarcerated and formerly gang-involved community members for years to come.
And remember, if you are a nonprofit working with people in reentry or those leaving gangs and are serious about starting a free or low-cost community-based program, feel free to contact us for a complimentary copy of our second book, Tattoo Removal: Establishing a Free or Low-Cost Community-Based Program, A How-to Guide.