Jo Martin is a retiree from the corporate world who now removes tattoos from the skin of people for whom the inked hieroglyphics mark lives of addiction and crime they are trying to escape.
I met Martin when I was recently in Northern Kentucky.
A few years ago, with her children grown, Martin was tutoring jail inmates, most of whom were repeat offenders and long-time drug addicts. A friend told her about a priest in Los Angeles working with gang members.
Father Greg Boyle had begun Homeboy Industries, which offered paths out of gang membership, the friend said. Boyle was speaking at a university in Ohio, so Martin went to see him.
She was especially taken by Homeboy’s tattoo removal service, she told him. Every jail inmate she tutored had them, and the stains were impediments not just to them getting work and renting apartments, but in fully leaving behind a damaging way of life.
Some part of why people remained in addiction seemed to have to do with their tattoos, she said. The markings served to keep them mired in crime and drugs, pulling them back even when their intentions were good. Removing the ink, on the other hand, seemed to imply a commitment from which there was no turning back.
She emailed Boyle later to find out more. “Come to California,” he wrote back. She went, toured Homeboy Industries and saw the organization’s tattoo removal operation.
She returned to Northern Kentucky and formed a tattoo-removal nonprofit, Tattoo Removal Ink. Using the life insurance her late husband had left her, she spent $55,000 on a laser machine – an Astanza Duality – that removes tattoos of black and red ink.
Astanza sent people to train Martin in using the machine. “Never in my life had I touched a laser,” Martin told me. “None of us knew how, but it’s very doable. To practice, we did a whole bunch of people who weren’t incarcerated, charging them nothing.”
In 2016, from a small office, Martin and two nurses began removing tattoos of those leaving the jail where she used to tutor – with particular emphasis on those on the face, neck and hands, as well as the markings of gang membership, and the tattoos pimps apply to brand their prostitutes.
Soon she began to see the bizarre – the man with a Hannibal Lecter mask tattooed across his lower face. Another with a dotted line tattooed down the middle of his face, with one side of his face clean, then other mightily tattooed.
“We take a lot of swastikas off,” she said. “And teardrops.”