‘I’m able to be me’: STR8 UP offering free tattoo removal services to former gang members

It’s not uncommon for people to regret some of the tattoos they got when they were younger. But some tattoos are more important to leave behind than others. 

STR8 UP in Saskatoon helps children and adults leave gangs safely, and supports their ongoing healing. Now, thanks to provincial funding, STR8UP is able to offer people a way to shed unwanted gang tattoos as well.

Saskatoon resident Sandatana Longneck-Couillonneur, 27, joined a gang when she was about 15 years old. Just over a year later, she got a tattoo of a bandana on her arm. Longneck-Couillonneur said it felt special to be in a close-knit group, and getting the bandana tattoo was a way to connect her to the gang.

“I thought it would be cool to put it on my body, to have it be a symbol, to be recognized, to be known that I was a part of that gang,” said Longneck-Couillonneur, who felt like she was part of a loving family at the time. 

But as the years went by, Longneck-Couillonneur wanted to get away from the gang violence. She also had a baby in her late teens and said she didn’t want to be a “rough mom.”

“I was so stuck in those teen years wanting to be a part of that life and run around in the streets. I just basically put a stop to it. I said, ‘Look, this is enough. This ain’t me no more. Like, what kind of life and future are you going to provide for your children?” said Longneck-Couillonneur.

“I didn’t want to give them the example of that, to see their mother as a gangster.”

She said she has worked hard not to get pulled back into gang life, and has since had three more children. 

A tattoo removal lazer on a tattooed arm.
Sandatana Longneck-Couillonneur sits for a tattoo removal session at STR8 UP in Saskatoon. She says she loves seeing how much her gang-related tattoo has faded already. (Laura Sciarpelletti/CBC)

Getting the tattoo removed

STR8 UP was able to procure a tattoo removal laser earlier this year, thanks to money from the province’s gang violence reduction strategy. The organization has a three-year contract with the province, and receives $1.1 million each year to provide services like this one. 

Removing tattoos is an expensive process. Depending on the size of the tattoo, laser removal can cost between $100 and $500 per session. Those numbers come from a handful of Regina and Saskatoon businesses that offer tattoo removal, and STR8 UP confirmed the accuracy of those price points to CBC.

“Free tattoo removal has always been in the back of our minds because there was always a need that we had with the individuals who access us for support,” said Russ Misskey, executive director of STR8 UP.

A complete tattoo removal can take anywhere from six to 12 sessions. For many who are recovering from leaving gangs or drugs, working low-paying jobs after being in and out of jail, or working their way through school while raising children at the same time, paying for tattoo removal is a luxury they cannot afford, Misskey said. 

When Longneck-Couillonneur learned about STR8 UP’s free tattoo removal program, she said it felt like a chance to get her body back. She was tired of having to explain the tattoo to friends, partners and potential employers.

Longneck-Couillonneur has now had two removal sessions, and is thrilled to see the unwanted tattoo fade. 

“I was just really happy and joyful ’cause I carried it on me. And then finally having it removed off of my body, like having the first session done on me, was very exciting,” she said. 

Today Longneck-Couillonneur is a single mother and is back in school getting her Grade 10 in an entrepreneurship business program. She said she wants to eventually get her social work degree and help others just like her. 

‘I got tired of fighting’

Saskatoon resident Devon Napope, 36, got his tattoos in the Saskatoon Correctional Centre when he was around 21 years old. 

The Cree father and third-year Indigenous social work student from One Arrow First Nation said the three tattoos — which include a large chest piece — didn’t have any deep meaning. Napope said he just wanted something to connect him to the gang lifestyle he was in. 

A man in a suit stands in front of a green wall.
Devon Napope got three tattoos in the Saskatoon Correctional Centre when he was around 21 years old. Napope has since left gang life, but says the jail tattoos have held him back. (Laura Sciarpelletti/CBC)

Napope left the gang in 2011. 

“I got tired of fighting. I got tired of the pain and the trauma … being away from family, the prison life and the violence that we sometimes have to inflict on each other whether we’re friends or not,” Napope said. 

“There’s an illusion of love … a twisted kind of love. And I was caught up in this. And it came to the point where I had to fight family. [That’s] when I chose to leave.”

Napope said that at the time, he never got a chance to be a father, or make his grandmother proud. He wanted to be a good example for his children, and a “beacon” for his community. 

But Napope said his jail tattoos always held him back. He said they no longer represent the man he has become since he left gang life behind — a time in which he suffered nine stab wounds and had to undergo three surgeries on his stomach. 

Napope always wears long-sleeved shirts to cover the tattoos, especially when seeking employment.

“Going in for an interview, I already have to worry about my skin colour. And then on top of that, I’ve got to think about the tattoos and the stigma that goes with them,” Napope said.

“I don’t feel good going into an interview showing my tattoos ’cause I’m always really cognizant about how people are viewing me, because I know they’re already judging me. I want them off me. I want a fresh, clean start for my body.”

Napope has had three tattoo removal sessions at STR 8UP so far, which he is grateful for. 

“I’m able to be me. It’s a resurgence in who I am. It gives me the opportunity to figure out who I am and what I really want from myself now, instead of looking at reminders of the past.”

A man get his tattoo removed by a laser.
Devon Napope at STR8 UP in Saskatoon for a tattoo removal laser session. (Laura Sciarpelletti/CBC)

Taking applications

STR8 UP started removing tattoos quietly in April. At this time, there are 30 people going through laser sessions. Misskey said STR8 UP is now ready to take more applications, and not just from people from gang backgrounds. 

“It’s employment, it’s body image, but it’s also tattoos that create negativity when they’re recognized out there for people. [The tattoo] creates conflict. It reminds them of somebody who they aren’t anymore — the lifestyle that they’ve been trying to heal from,” Misskey said. 

Acceptance for free tattoo removal will be determined on a case-by-case basis, with priority given to those from gang backgrounds and those with visible tattoos. 

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