The doctor who helps ex-cons remove their scarring legacies

In prison, a face tattoo might seem like a good idea. But on the outside...

(Image credit: <a href="">(Narratively/Per Liljas)</a>)

The skin between Dr. David Ores' shoulder blades is embellished with a colossal tattoo, an "M" and a "D," etched grandly in the Old English style. Ores, a general practitioner with an office in the East Village, also has, tattooed on his arms, the portraits of 11 different women. One of the women is modeled on a former girlfriend, a famous painter; the rest he found in comic books. On his left shoulder, a blond wearing red cowboy boots and waving a nurse's cap straddles an oversized syringe. On his right shoulder, twin serpents corkscrew around a winged brunette — a play on the caduceus, mythical symbol of medicine and healing. Ores is 53 and strongly built, with pale skin and pudgy cheeks. When seeing patients, he favors a uniform of untied black work boots, cuffed black Dickie pants, and a sleeveless T-shirt printed with the logo of a truck stop or a strip club. These are the clothes in which he feels most comfortable and which he believes will encourage his patients to be most open about what ails them.

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A few years ago, Ores bought a giant laser and started charging people to remove their tattoos. The work began as a lucrative sideline to help underwrite services for his low-income clients. A complete erasure can require up to a dozen sessions and cost $3,000. Not long after, one of Dr. Ores' colleagues asked him for a favor. A friend, a former gang member, was desperate for a job, but the tops of his fingers were tattooed with the words "BABY CRIP," a deal breaker for most employers. The man wanted the tattoo erased, but couldn't afford the treatment. Ores volunteered to remove it for free. Soon, Ores was offering his services gratis to any former gang member or inmate with a tattoo on his face, hands or neck — places that couldn't be easily obscured by clothing. Now, people come to him seeking to change their lives. In canceling out a man's marks, the doctor is midwife to a new identity.

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Last spring, a 24-year-old man named Les texted Dr. Ores a picture of his face, asking if he could help. Dr. Ores said yes. A few days later, Les, who lived several states away, where he was on probation, packed up his possessions and moved to Brooklyn to begin his tattoo removal treatment.

Les says he got most of the tattoos on his face in jail. He is physically small — five-foot-seven and less than 130 pounds — so at the time, anything he could do to make himself appear more threatening seemed prudent. One tattoo, on his right cheek, says "666." Another, below his left eye, reads, "HATE." The space above Les' lips is emblazoned with "MISANTHROPE," and the bottom left half of his forehead bears "THE JUDGE" — an homage, he says, to the villain in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, his favorite book. The interstitial spaces are filled in with lines and dots and asterisks. Every piece of real estate is accounted for. Even the skin over his eyelids is marked with two little "x"s. When they first spoke, Dr. Ores warned Les that these tattoos would be especially difficult to remove, as there was a danger of the laser penetrating the membrane over his eyes and melting his retinas. Les said he could live with the x's.

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At that point, Les had been applying to jobs for several months. Thinking honesty was the best policy, he had sent employers a picture of his face along with his applications. He received one interview, which went badly. The call to Dr. Ores had arrived at a spiritual low point.

"It was the first time I'd felt really positive in a long time," Les tells me a few months later, recalling the first time he spoke to Ores. "I cried."

In the 1980s, Ores was studying medicine at Columbia and on track to become a surgeon, but he changed his mind. Surgeons, he learned, are expected to wake up early, spend much of their day waiting around until they're needed, and then devote spare time to Machiavellian political maneuvering. The patients they do see are often heavily anesthetized, making it tough to form meaningful relationships. Instead, Ores found himself drawn to the steady, comparatively social calling of a general practitioner. In an age of hyper-managed care, Ores' medical practice is defiantly antiquated, like that of an old-world country doctor. He works alone, without a partner or staff. He answers his own phone — "This is Dr. Dave!" — draws his own blood, calls in his own prescriptions, and cleans his own sinks and toilets. When necessary, he makes house calls. Ores' clientele is composed of rent-stabilized East Villagers, students and the working poor. He charges a flat rate of $125 per office visit, but accepts less from those who say they can't afford it. His patients pay by cash, credit card, or PayPal. Ores does not accept insurance, to which he declares himself a conscientious objector.

Dr. Ores' tattoo removal services are in wide demand. His program, called "Fresh Start," is the only one of its kind in the New York area, and one of few like it in the nation. Every week, Ores receives emails and phone calls from tattooed ex-cons all over the country who have found him on the internet. Few, though, can afford the multiple trips to New York necessary for a full treatment. Most of Ores' new Fresh Start patients are referred to him by a local network of parole officers, social workers, re-entry counselors, judges, and military recruiters. For a time, a battered women's shelter provided him clients who had tattoos that had been forcibly applied by their boyfriends.

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"They'd have tattoos on their neck, their butt, near their vagina, with the guy's name on it," Ores told me. "'Property of Chris,' "This is mine' — that sort of thing."

Ores is a devout believer in Fresh Start. As testament to this, the insides of his wrists are tattooed with a series of thick black numbers. On his left wrist are the numbers 0, 1 and 2; on the right wrist 4, 6 and 8. The numerals, fleshy demonstrations of the tattoo removal process, grow progressively fainter as they rise. The "0" is a regular tattoo. The "1," somewhat pale, shows the effects of a single treatment. The "2," paler, shows the effects of two treatments. The "8" is all but invisible. Dr. Ores shows his wrist to new tattoo removal patients to convince them that he knows first-hand what they are in for. Since the program began in 2007, Ores has erased the tattoos of about 100 patients. He has expunged the names of gangs, cliques, prisons, cities, streets, family members, lovers and the dead, as well as profanities, quotes, oaths, religious insignia, people, animals, insects, weapons, money, tear drops, spider webs, tribal patterns, runes, stars, skulls, dice, hearts, flags and swastikas.

Read the rest of this story at Narratively.

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