Joshua Lipkin believes that removing two tattoos on his stomach—one from a former gang, the other of a marijuana leaf—will help turn his life around.

"It promotes something I don't want to promote," says Lipkin, a 30-year-old ex-con turned full-time business student at Portland Community College.

And thanks to the Project Erase tattoo-removal program of local nonprofit Outside In, Lipkin, who served seven years for assault, will be tattoo-free by next year.

But Outside In can't prove any tangible benefits for Lipkin and the nearly 400 others who pay $25 a visit to participate each year in Project Erase. The tattoo-removal program is aimed at Portlanders once involved with gangs, homelessness, substance abuse, criminal activity or domestic violence.

"There's not a lot of follow-up in some ways," says program coordinator Jarratt Taylor. "That would probably take a lot of time."

Outside In, which helps homeless and runaway youth, says on its website that tattoo removal will help those "who are now interested in going back to school or getting a job and for whom their tattoos are a barrier toward reintegration into society."

Most of the removed tattoos are gang- or prison-related, like Lipkin's. Another 20 percent are antisocial (such as the word "FUCK" across the knuckles), and about 5 percent are domestic violence-related—that is, forced on a woman by a pimp or spouse.

By the time Lipkin is done with his six to 15 visits, he'll have paid between $150 to $375—a new fee this year driven by budget cuts from funding sources like Oregon's Family Planning Expansion Project.

The $25-per-visit fee is still less than the $200 per square inch a dermatologist might charge. But once Lipkin has paid to be tattoo-free, Project Erase won't track whether he finishes school, finds a job or "reintegrates into society." The program's privately donated $90,000 annual budget doesn't allot funds to follow up after participants' tattoos are gone.

"You go with your gut and anecdotal things," says clinic director John Duke. While Duke says it would be hard to track most participants' progress anyway, Taylor says, "It would probably be nice to know."

Failure to track participants' post-tattoo lives isn't the program's only loophole.

In late 2004, Project Erase acted to cut down its waiting list of 300-plus clients, which had meant a wait of about six months to get an appointment. It did so by using more selective criteria, eliminating patients whose tattoos were visible (below the elbow or on the neck or head) but weren't gang-, criminal-, drug- or domestic violence-related. And the waiting list is down to 102 people, or about two months, to get an appointment at its new clinic at 311 NW Broadway.

But there's not enough money or manpower for Project Erase to run background checks to make sure all participants fit these "stricter" criteria.

Loopholes aside, Outside In executive director Kathy Oliver says all participants experience at least one benefit from tattoo removal.

"It's the removal of shame," she says.