SAN PABLO -- An innovative new program here involves lasers and job training, and it draws participants from as far as San Jose and Stockton.

High-tech skills for Silicon Valley jobs? A steppingstone to Google or Apple?

Not exactly. The big draw is the blank slate -- on peoples' bodies.

Every month, dozens come to a low-cost tattoo-removal clinic in San Pablo. They wear protective goggles and wince in pain under a hot laser, in search of a fresh start. Sponsored by the San Pablo Economic Development Corp., the city and New Skin Adult Tattoo Removal, a San Jose-based tattoo-removal company, the monthly clinic is the first step in the city's Removing Barriers program.

Alexandra Todd gets a tattoo removal treatment as part of the Removing Barriers tattoo removal program in San Pablo.
Alexandra Todd gets a tattoo removal treatment as part of the Removing Barriers tattoo removal program in San Pablo. (Leslay Choy)

The program, which started in April, has added job-readiness training and financial-responsibility classes to its regimen, said San Pablo Economic Development Corp. General Manager Leslay Choy.

The cost is $50 per session for residents, $75 for nonresidents. It typically takes six to 10 sessions to remove a tattoo.

Participants who complete the job-training component of the program are reimbursed more than half the costs for the tattoo removal upon completion.

"We want to not just erase visible barriers but also offer the job-readiness component," Choy said. "Our goal is education and training to enhance the work force."

The program represents a novel approach in the Bay Area by the tiny city, which comprises just 2.6 square miles and makes fewer headlines than its more high-profile neighbors.


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But San Pablo has a stubbornly high unemployment rate, 14.4 percent, higher than neighboring Richmond and well above the state average of 8.6 percent, and city leaders hope the relatively low-cost partnership might make a difference.

"We truly want to shift the needle in terms of unemployment and underemployment," Choy said. "We are determined that people think of San Pablo as a place with a highly capable work force."

While tattoos are common -- more than 45 million people nationwide are estimated to have at least one -- career counselors and job seekers say they can be barriers to employment. Most of the participants got tattoos when they were younger that they now regret, Choy said.

For Fiona Lam, tattoos were a barrier to employment, and to personal healing. In her late teens, she got several tattoos on her neck and forearms.

"I was in a different state of mind," she said.

When she sought employment, it was a problem.

"When they're visible right away, like the one on my neck, it's not good for first impressions," Lam said.

Now 22, Lam said her tattoo removals have given her new hope.

Alex Max, 23, of Richmond, has had three treatments to remove tattoos on her wrists and forearms. Max said she hopes having the tattoos removed will
Alex Max, 23, of Richmond, has had three treatments to remove tattoos on her wrists and forearms. Max said she hopes having the tattoos removed will improve her career prospects. (Robert Rogers/Staff)

"I'm really excited about the future for the first time," Lam said, adding that she recently landed a job in a senior living facility.

The program is administered with the help of a part-time intern and some volunteer staff. Total costs amount to about $66,000, paid by a portion of proceeds from measure Q, a voter-approved sales tax increase of one-half cent for five years and a quarter-cent five years after that, Choy said.

City Manager Matt Rodriguez said he's pleased that the program has grown.

"We believe in building programs for people who are struggling with barriers to gainful employment," Rodriguez said. "Tattoo removal isn't glamorous, but it provides incredible hope to many looking for a second chance."

Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726 or rrogers@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/SFBaynewsrogers.

tattoo removal CLINICS:
8 a.m. to 12 p.m. Sept. 28, Oct. 26, Nov. 30 and Dec. 21. All clinics take place at the San Pablo Economic Development Corp. offices (13830 San Pablo Avenue, Suite D). To schedule an appointment or for more information, call 510-215-3189.