Ministry helps people overcome ‘inky’ pasts

By Enedelia J. Obregón
Senior Correspondent

It was painful to watch Amber get a tattoo removed from her neck.
First, Nurse Jennie Kunkel sprayed a topical anesthetic, which made it easier for what came next: Kunkel injected another anesthetic just below the skin all along the remaining lines of the fading tattoo. Amber winced in pain and dug her nails into the palm of her left hand. With her right, she clutched her husband’s left hand as he pushed their young daughter in her stroller with his right hand.
The injection would make the next step bearable –– Certified Nursing Assistant Jan Arensman used a handheld infrared machine to zap the ink in the tattoo and causes the tattoo to fade in a few weeks. A popping noise startled her.
“It’s only a hair,” Arensman reassured Amber as she continued the process.
Amber hopes this will be the last treatment she needs. Tattoo removal takes several treatments because only an area the size of a deck of cards is done at a time. The treatments have been worth it to help Amber separate herself from her previous life and the “stupid choices” she once made, she said.
After getting a pressure dressing and after-care instructions, Amber is out the door –– hoping it’s her last visit.
Kunkel and Jan Arensman, along with Julie Arensman and founder Jeanne Arensman, are part the St. Dismas Tattoo Removal Ministry in Mart. Kunkel is a parishioner at St. Louis Parish in Waco, Julie Arensman is a parishioner at St. Joseph Parish in Elk, and Jan Arensman and Jeanne Arensman –– mother to Jan and Julie –– are parishioners at St. Mary Parish in Waco.
The ministry, named after the thief crucified alongside Jesus who asked for forgiveness, offers the service for free. Dermatologists charge as much as $100 per square inch per session to remove a tattoo. The ministry members have received training and pay only for the medical supplies and medicines used.
They take their ministry into the nearby Texas Juvenile Justice Department in Gatesville on the second Saturday of the month to give youth an option of getting rid of their gang tattoos before being released. If they keep their tattoos, they are at risk of being “reclaimed” by gangs in their neighborhoods.
On the first Saturday of each month, they offer tattoo removal service at St. Peter Catholic Center at Baylor University, for adults who have acquired tattoos in prison and want a fresh start. Each tattoo requires several treatments and leaves a discolored area that is sun-sensitive. It takes longer to get rid of inks such as red and yellow.
Rob, 39, is one of those adults who decided to get rid of some ink after he got out of federal prison. The Waco native has been out of prison for five years after serving more than six years of an eight-year sentence.
It was a tattoo on his chest with two side-by-side hearts with his name and that of his first wife that brought him to St. Peter Catholic Center at the urging of his current wife, whom he married after leaving prison. It took five treatments to get rid of the names on the hearts, which remained.
“I got the tattoo because it was a way of keeping her with me and keeping my marriage going,” he said. “I’m not glorifying what I did or recommending what I did.”
He easily could have contracted hepatitis or AIDS, a reality from getting prison tattoos, which are against prison rules but get done between guard rounds. The tattoo artists use crude tools such as staples or safety pins and ink from pens or ink cartridges from printers that they steal. The tattoo artists get paid with items from the commissary. 
Rob has a second tattoo on his left bicep that chronicles prison life. There’s a tower and a guard signifying the constant vigilance; a clock with a chain, a symbol of the time they are incarcerated; a calendar, a symbol of time spent behind bars; a sad mask and a happy mask; and barbed wire, which surrounds all prisons.
This tattoo will stay. It would take a long time to remove and can be covered with his shirt sleeve so it’s not visible at work, which puts him ahead of where most former inmates are.
“I’m going in the right direction from what I did before,” he said. “I started as a waiter and now I’m manager.”
The youngest son of the restaurant owner was his best friend and they gave him a second chance. So did his mother and his current wife, whom he married a year ago. He is trying to do right by his son, 15.
“He was in pre-K when I went in,” Rob said. “He was in sixth grade when I got out. I missed all those years.”
Neither his family nor his friends knew what he was doing, and were shocked when he was arrested at age 24.
“They supported me with letters and phone calls,” he said. His friend’s parents told him he’d have a job when he got out. 
“I don’t know what I’d do without a job,” said Rob, who learned landscaping and how to lay concrete in prison. “If I had to, I’d work two or three jobs.”
He attends church and has stayed clean and is no longer on parole.
It is success stories such as Rob’s that encourage the St. Dismas ministry members. The ministry, founded six years ago this month, was initiated by the tragedy of a young man they knew as volunteers with the Prison Ministry at the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. There, they saw him regularly at Mass and praying the rosary.
“He was from the Valley and that’s where he returned,” Jeanne Arensman said. “He was doing everything right: He had a part-time job, was going to church and taking classes at night.”
His mother told them that members of the gang her son had belonged to came looking for him, asking him to do something he didn’t want to do and he was told “you belong to us.” When he still refused, he was run over by a car and killed as he walked home from his job.
“Young people don’t realize that gang tattoos mean you belong to them,” Jeanne Arensman said. “There is only one way to get out of a gang.”
Jeanne Arensman learned about the free tattoo removal program started by Dr. Tobert S. Wilkinson, a dermatologist in Bandera credited with inventing the tattoo removal process. They were trained by him on how to use the Redfield Infrared Coagulator.
“When we remove the gang tattoos, we offer them a chance to start over,” Kunkel said.
The women remove tattoos from visible areas so the tattoos won’t prevent them from getting jobs or entering the military. There are some exceptions to that rule, such as abused women who are often branded as if they were cattle.
“Abusers often force them to get tattoos with their name or other tattoos,” she said. “That’s to show those women belong to them. We often have social workers calling us about that. Getting rid of that tattoo frees her from her abuser.”
Getting financing for the ministry has also been a struggle, but Jeanne Arensman is persistent. When she had trouble raising the last $1,500 for the infrared system, which cost $8,200 six years ago, she wrote a letter to Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond, then bishop of the Diocese of Austin. He sent her a personal check for the amount.
Those wanting a tattoo removed may write to the ministry and request an application or call (254) 876-2277. Paperwork will be mailed and must be completed in order to be considered. Appointments are required and will be scheduled after approval. To make a donation to the St. Dismas Tattoo Removal Ministry, send checks to P.O. Box 68, Mart, TX 76664.
Help is also available from the Central Texas Tattoo Removal Project. Appointments are required. Call (512) 412-0788 or visit www.cttrp.org for information.