In the latest article in our series on organizations that offer free and low-cost tattoo removals, we’d like to introduce Loretta Kent, the founder of the Southwest Tattoo Removal Program, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in San Antonio, Texas.
It all began when Kent became acquainted with a plastic surgeon while working as an emergency room nurse. The plastic surgeon and a police officer put together a program to remove gang tattoos. And, in 2010, she became the medical professional who performed all the tattoo removals, which she did for three or four years until, as she says “I had to resign from the program because life interfered.” They couldn’t find another nurse, so the program was closed down.
Although Kent stopped doing those removals, she was haunted by the thought of young people with gang tattoos.
“It bothered me that all of these kids were out there with tattoos and were marked up, and it affected their lives,” she says. As a result, Kent decided to take action and form her own organization, Southwest Tattoo Removal Program, in 2016.
She purchased a refurbished Duality laser from Astanza in late 2017. Although they gave her a good deal as a nonprofit, she had to put in her own money to get the organization started. “I put in $20,000 to $30,000 over time before it became profitable. Then it began paying for itself, and then it began paying for me,” she says.
Until 2020 she continued to work full time as a nurse and did the removals on Saturdays. After retiring from nursing she began to run the program full time and hired Nicole Miller, a laser technician who had previously been a client, to remove the tattoos. There’s also a volunteer who manages clients and takes care of the front office. Kent now handles the business side of the program. Its operating hours are Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The program’s original Astanza Duality is broken, so Astanza lent them a brand-new Duality to use. But Kent says, “I really want a Pico. It seems to produce better results. I haven’t figured out how to raise the money, however.”
Paying customers subsidize free tattoo removals.
The way it works: the Southwest Tattoo Removal Program removes tattoos from face, hands and neck for free if people are unemployed. If they’re employed, they pay a rate starting at $45 per session, which is far less than other tattoo removal operations in the area charge, according to Kent.
Everyone has to pay for tattoos removed from parts of the body except the face, hands and neck.
“The goal is to have them (those with the visible tattoos) be more employable, gain more confidence in themselves and have the public look at them differently,” says Kent.
Southwest Tattoo Removal Program performs about 300 treatments per month. “Forty percent of the people meet our mission. The other 60% are the ones who pay, which is less than others charge in town,” she says. “We use the money from the 60% to subsidize the 40%.”
How she drums up business
Kent hires Rangel Marketing, a marketing company that specializes in lead generation to gain her clients.
“He has a computer system called Clinic Leads. Through this program we can text back and forth, set appointments and track them,” she says. The system also manages client contacts.
The ads Rangel creates bring in text messages, and Kent responds by text. “Then they send in pictures, and the next thing you know they’re showing up at the door,” she says. About 85% of the program’s clients come through this service. The others are referred by probation and police departments, as well as military recruiters. She’s also contacted local youth programs and appears at job fairs and in prisons to spread the word about her free tattoo removal program.
In the office, Kent has created a separate home-grown system for managing client treatment records. Clients fill out paperwork which is scanned into a computer file, along with treatment notes and photos of their tattoo(s) at various stages of the process.
The challenge and the reward
“The biggest challenge we face is that the client has a fear of tattoo removal. And they wonder, ‘Is it going to hurt?’” Kent says. “The challenge is getting them through the door the first time because of that fear. But then they realize they didn’t have anything to be afraid of.”
Another challenge is reliability. “People who work have no trouble showing up for their appointments. Sometimes people don’t show up and we have to call them,” she says. “Then we have a conversation – we call it our counseling session. We give them a little pep talk when they come in.”
In spite of the challenges, Kent finds the work quite worthwhile. “In the end it’s nice to see the change in people. It’s very fulfilling,” she says.