The Hidden Process in Immigration


“There is a big market …. for tattoo removal because people who at one point got tattoos because it is fashionable or because it was a way to express themselves artistically are facing discrimination.”

Andrea Oñate-Madrazo

An article by attorney Gary Chodorow said, “the State Department’s position is that a tattoo may be one piece of evidence as to whether an applicant [for a United States visa] is a security risk.”

According to the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., “tattoos are revealed almost entirely through medical exam.” In these exams, physicians are supposed to take note of all marks on the body– including tattoos. If tattoos are mentioned on the medical notes, those wishing to come into the United States can be subject to follow up questions and another interview.

If a person does not pass the follow-up interviews through the inability to prove their tattoos are not gang affiliated, they can be filtered out of the Green Card Process.

Kevin C. Gregg, a central coast immigration attorney, said “tattoos are generally only an issue at the consulates in Mexico and Central America. It rarely comes up otherwise.”

But in Assistant Professor of History at Cal Poly Dr. Andrea Oñate-Madrazo’s two-year green card process, tattoos never came up.

“I don’t know if it would make a difference if I had a visible tattoo on my face or a visible tattoo on my hands or arms, but that [tattoos] was never a question,” Oñate-Madrazo said.

According to Gregg, “It is very rare that it [tattoos act as an inhibitor to immigration] happens, but it is a big deal to the person when it does happen because it means they are permanently ineligible to enter the United States. There is no appeal or pardon to overcome it.”

Even though Mexican immigrants are regularly subject to tattoo screening initiatives in the United States green card process, “they [tattoos] are less prevalent [in Mexico] than they are in a place like San Luis Obispo, where I’m surprised that when I go to yoga I think I might be the only person that doesn’t have a tattoo,” said Oñate-Madrazo, who was born in Mexico City, Mexico.

Oñate-Madrazo continued, “ If you are at big, cosmopolitan cities like Mexico City… there isn’t that much of a stigma attached to them[tattoos]” but “when you get to parts of Latin America where there is a strong gang presence, particularly in places like El Salvador and Guatemala, there is a lot of stigma,” because gang members are heavily tattooed.

Due to potential discrimination, “There is a big market in places like San Salvador and Guatemala City for tattoo removal because people who at one point got tattoos because it is fashionable or because it was a way to express themselves artistically are facing discrimination,” Oñate-Madrazo said.

Tattoo removal can be subject to questioning after a visa medical examination.

Currently, tattoos are not the only thing making the green card process more difficult for immigrants. President Donald Trump has added new steps to attain a visa. These include:

  • Increasing the number of interviews an applicant has to undergo
  • Adding additional questionnaires about travel and employment histories
  • And placing denied applicants who are unlawfully in the country in removal proceedings

As someone who received their Green Card a few months prior, Oñate-Madrazo said,“It’s mostly just a peace of mind, feeling like I am legitimate, permanent resident in the country where I have lived and paid taxes for most of my life,” in regards to her grueling documentation process while the United States is under a conservative administration.  

An introduction to Andrea Oñate-Madrazo and her education story.

The long process seems to have paid off in Oñate-Madrazo’s teachings. Lauren Cartwright, a second-year Pre-Veterinary Medicine Major and a student in Oñate-Madrazo’s HIST 216: Comparative Social Movements course, said, “I got the sense she was a well-traveled person, who has seen a lot of the world. This is reflected in her lecture-based class.” Cartwright goes on to explain the fluency of the lectures Oñate-Madrazo presents alongside minimalistic power-points.

At Cal Poly, Oñate-Madrazo also teaches:

  • History 223: World History 1800-present
  • History 338: Modern Latin America
  • History 442: Subversion in Latin America
  • And History 510: Grad Seminar: History of Human Rights
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Marked at Cal Poly: A Student Profile

“After I got it [my first tattoo at 18], stuff started happening. Basketball started blowing up.”

Victor Joseph, 22.

Victor Joseph is a senior communication studies major at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.

Joseph is a student athlete who has 10 tattoos. The artwork he showcases on his body includes: memorials, scripture and music references.

His tattoos start as a chest piece and continue down his arm into a sleeve.

“I didn’t know what I was gonna do in my life. But after I got it [my first tattoo at 18], stuff started happening. Basketball started blowing up,” Joseph said.  

Joseph transferred to Poly in the 2016-2017 basketball season from Chaffey College. In his first year as a Mustang, he appeared in 31 games with 14 starts. Because he was given four years to compete athletically under the NCAA rules, he only competed for two seasons at Poly.

In the first season, he played an average of 25 minutes a game, scoring an average of 12 points.

For the 2017-2018 season he upped his stats. He scored 88 percent at the freethrow line, started all 31 of the games he played and averaged 14.4 points a game.

He has since signed with an agent and plans to play professionally, overseas.

Making Their Mark on the Conversation

A lady with artwork like Wilson foresees herself having.

Two first year students at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo gave their perspectives on tattoos.

Julie Wong is a first year sociology major and a fourth generation Asian American, from southern California. Wong was raised in a Presbyterian church. She herself has no tattoos or piercings claiming, “I never really was interested in either of the two”.

Mekenna Wilson is a first generation college student who is switching into the sociology program. She is a Caucasian mix of: German, Portuguese and Irish. Wilson has 11 piercings, 3 tattoos and a branding.

Stick ‘N Poke: Tattoos for Impulse

Mekenna Wilson preparing her ankle for the tattoo.

Mekenna Wilson is a first year sociology major at California Polytechnic State University. On Wednesday, the first of May, she traveled to downtown San Luis Obispo to compare walk-in tattoo prices.

Wilson is looking for a Stick ’N Poke artist.

Stick ’N Poke tattoos are also know as hand poked tattoos. They use a single, sharp needle and ink, not a machine.

While this may seem like a new trend, Stick ’N Poke used to be called ‘prison tats’.

The three tattoo parlors downtown include: True West, San Luis Tattoo Company and Traditional Tattoo.

Artist Eddie Molina inside True West.

True West was Wilson’s first stop on her journey. It is a relatively new parlor in downtown San Luis Obispo. They opened shop two and a half years ago. Unfortunately for Wilson, True West does not participate in the mainstream Stick ’N Poke trends. The artists at this shop specialize in specific areas of expertise.

“[Our shop gets customers] who are looking for specific artist and styles– lots of collectors,” said Eddie Molina a fine line, black and grey, photorealism artist at True West. He mentioned they also see the occasional college student.

The main entrance of San Luis Tattoo Company.

Next was San Luis Tattoo Company, a private studio in downtown. According to their website, the art they specialize in is traditional, black and grey illustrative and black and grey portrait. However, Wilson was unable to enter the facility.

Close up of the doorbell.

Traditional is an older shop in the community, and the final stop downtown on Wilson’s list. Traditional Tattoo has existed for 15 years under the current owners. They have a residential handpoke tattoo artist named Matt Southwood. But, he was not at the studio at the time Wilson went.

“We have a large Cal Poly population [in our customer base], but we also cater to many locals,” said Louie Campopiano an artist of 10 years at Traditional.

“[It’s a] 60-40 split between locals and Cal Poly students, with the locals in the latter,” Campopiano continued.

Both True West and Traditional Tattoo have an 80 dollar minimum. San Luis Tattoo Company does not accept walk in clients and has no listed minimum.

“The main reason I do not have more tattoos is because they are way too expensive for what I can afford as a college student,” said Wilson.

So, she looked for alternative options.

Mekenna Wilson’s DIY piercing is the stud at the top of her cartilage.

“In the past, if I wanted something and couldn’t afford it, I would get them anyway,” said Wilson. In her room, she has pierced her own ear and branded herself along with her roommate “because we were feeling that crackhead energy.”

These alternate and cheaper options for her body modifications will now include a ‘dorm tat’.

“I was kinda terrified, because I didn’t know the guy and it is an at home thing,” said Wilson going into the tattoo.

Easton Elting is a first year computer science major and a dorm based Stick ’N Poke artist. His own adventures as an artist began only in the fall of this year, fall 2018.

“I got the [Stick ’N Poke] kit the first or second week at college because I was in a weird place and I felt like permanently altering my body for the worst,” said Elting.

Elting began the tattooing process by asking Wilson, “Do you want a needle others have used or a new one?” Jokingly Wilson replied, “Surprise me!”

This is Wilson’s third tattoo, but first ‘dorm tat’.

Both artists, Molina and Campopiano, mentioned in their interviews the trend of tattoos they see college students follow, in their shops.

According to Molina “starter tattoos” are what college students get. For girls it is “something simple. Something they can keep hidden. Usually by the side of the bra or something down on the ankle, if the are not really worried about mom and dad. But, something small and dainty, so it won’t mess with how they look with a dress on.” While “boys tend to get the slogans: ‘Stay strong’; ‘PMA’. Or they got into a drinking game with their buddy and lost the bet.”

Campopiano said, “lately, the pinterest-y style of tattoos, that are simple and black and very straightforward are the most notable style item,” along with geometric dot style.

Easton Elting giving Mekenna Wilson a tattoo.

These simple, dot tattoos are the extent of Elting’s experience.

Elting said, “I’ve done like a ‘W’ maybe; an airplane, but it kinda looks like a dolphin; an ‘N’ which is supposed to be a ‘N-H’; and a penis,” but he notes the only pattern he has seen when giving tattoos is the reaction of the person.

“They are like ‘OW!’ for however many pokes I did and then they are like ‘Thank you!’,” said Elting.

While Elting’s Stick ‘N Poke endeavors are in sharp contrast to the artist seen downtown, Wilson notes, “I should get a kit, so I could do my tattoos myself. That way I wouldn’t need to pay for them.”

But Molina said for those planning to get a tattoo like Wilson, “Do your research. Don’t just get tattooed by anybody. When you choose an artist, talk to people who have been tattooed by them and ask about their experience. Look at the portfolios. Don’t just jump into it like ‘hey imma get a tattoo now.’ That’s how you end up with a bad tattoo.”

Which is not Wilson’s personality. “I’m very impulsive. I already have two tattoos that I regret, so what’s a third? I decided about both [of my previous tattoos] a week before I got them. Really, my second one I decided a day before. And this one I decided a couple hours ago.”

Elting’s final piece.

Wilson’s tattoo is a sun on her heel.

Tattoos for Health

No photo description available.
Photo from The Semicolon Tattoo Project Facebook Page

According to the Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, it has been found that the ages of 18 to 24 are when mental health issues begin to play a part in many people’s lives. Similarly, adolescence is the most common time to acquire tattoos.

Links between mental illness and tattoos remain prevalent. A study by the International Journal of Dermatology titled “Are tattoos associated with negative health‐related outcomes and risky behaviors?” even found people with tattoos were more likely to be diagnosed with mental health issues.


Considering the college aged population has a lot of new stressers, higher rates in mental illnesses can be understood. While stress differs from person to person, it exists for everyone. From roommates, to deadlines, to living away from home. There is a variety of areas stress can come from in college.

In an annual survey of American college students, over 39 percent of them said that they felt so depressed that it was hard to function. This brings to question: what can be done to combat this health epidemic? Tattoos seem to be an alternate route to traditional therapy that college students are choosing to take to cope with the pressures.

There are even befits to going under the needle.

The sensation of the needle can feel like a massage and the hum of the machine can be calming to the ears. The American Journal of Human Biology also said tattoos can reduce cortisol levels. This improves the immune system and aids in stress reduction. Meaning tattoos could be useful for depression and anxiety.

For those interested in the aesthetic, being tattooed can be used as a reward system.

But, there are still ‘tattoo therapy’ critics who are not sold on the idea that tattoos are a form of self care.

When someone gets a tattoo, the tattoo serves a purpose that varies owner to owner. But all tattoos are constant reminders of a specific moment in a person’s life.

 Project Semicolon is a popular form of recovery art that intertwines with mental health. It was created in support of those struggling with suicide, depression, self-injury and addiction. Since it has become a symbol of mental health awareness. The semi colon was chosen because it represents where a writer could have ended a sentence but didn’t. Each person is symbolically the author of their own lives. This tattoo conveys the message that you chose to continue.

Getting a tattoo can be a way to ‘own your story’, but it is not the only way tattoos are intertwined with mental health. Artists like Rav Norris are using their skills to raise money for the cause while simultaneously increasing mental health awareness through the art.


Maybe supporting what you believe in through body ink will go past the stigmas that overcast tattoos and mental health.

Tattoos: The Mark of Self Expression

A mountain landscape similar to that showcased on Sailor Sean Murphy’s bicep.


Tattoos began almost 6,000 years ago and now the United States has over 20,000 tattoo parlors. In 2012, 45 million people in America have been inked according to the History of Tattoos website.


“It’s almost like you are out of place if you don’t have tattoos now.”


In the Pew Research study “Millennials: Confident. Connected. Open to Change,” it was suggested the number for those with tattoos, in the 18 to 29 age group, is higher. The percentage of millennials sits at 40.  

The trend of permanent self expression is now showcased throughout the popular media. Kylie Jenner, David Beckham, Angelina Jolie, Ariana Grande, Russell Brand, Johnny Depp, Miley Cyrus and countless other, high profile celebrities showcase their ink to the public.

Blindspot, a television series released in 2015, exemplifies the movement of tattoos to mainstream life. The plot of the show revolves around a heroine, covered from head to toe, with tattoos.

“It’s almost like you are out of place if you don’t have tattoos now,” Sean Murphy, a twenty-two year old Sailor in the U.S. Navy with a completed half sleeve, said.

After showing the rolling mountain landscape on his bicep, Murphy went on explaining the diminishing counterculture. He said, “[tattoos] used to be frowned upon by society because only tattoo artists and biker gangs had them. Not just anyone.”

Now artists see repetitive tattoo requests with the surge of design share websites like Pinterest and the increased popularity of Instagram and Twitter social media platforms. Jeana Jane, a tattoo artist at Traditional Tattoo in San Luis Obispo, promoted her own repetitive, popular designs with a $100 dollar special for a promotional event earlier in April.

Murphy proceeded with, “Tattoos are getting bigger and bigger [in popularity]. They look amazing. And after you get one, you just wanna keep getting more and more.”

Tattoos are even considered a form of self expression and are protected from criminal law in the ‘free speech’ clause of the U.S. Constitution. So, other than age, there are not many legal statutes that prohibit body art.

According to the “My Body is Not My Resume Campaign,” the highest percentage of tattooed staff is within the government itself. The United States Military wins the prize with civilian agriculture workers trailing them in numbers, for the workers with the most tattoos.

The ten most tattooed cities in the United States, according to Medermis Laser Clinic, are Miami, Florida; Las Vegas, Nevada; Richmond, Virginia; Flint, Michigan; Portland, Oregon; Austin, Texas; San Francisco, California; Honolulu, Hawaii; Kansas City, Missouri; and Los Angeles, California.


Made by Jezzia Smith