It’s never ideal to be in jail or prison, but having a mugshot go viral is especially painful. This is exactly what happened to Alyssa Zebrasky of Warren, Ohio, who has one of the most memorable face tattoo arrest photos. Her skull face mugshot began circulating around various news outlets after her arrest in December 2018 for theft and drug-related charges.
Getting in trouble was nothing new to Alyssa, who had spent five years on house arrest as a teenager—but it marked her turning point. “I’d had enough,” she says. “I just couldn’t live like that. I didn’t want to go back to jail; I didn’t want to go back to prison. I didn’t want to get high anymore; I hadn’t for a long time; I just couldn’t stop.” She felt out of control, dissociated from who she truly was.
She began recovery and hasn’t looked back. “I no longer live that kind of life,” she says.
Her parole officer sent her a couple of links for removal services. Then COVID-19 hit, so she had to wait. It wasn’t until she started browsing through Removery’s Instagram, that she learned about the INK-nitiative program. She applied online and when we heard her story, we couldn’t wait to help Alyssa make a fresh start.
Alyssa Zebrasky’s battle with addiction
Alyssa began using pills at the age of 13 when her step-sister asked if she wanted to try something new. She hoped it could quell the desire to self-harm, something that was already a routine part of her life.
“When I was growing up, I felt different, like I didn’t belong,” Alyssa says. Self-harm acted as a means of channeling a more abstract, all-pervasive emotional pain into something tangible, something that she could pinpoint. She knew about alcoholism, but she didn’t know about pill addiction, so she had no way of knowing what she was getting into.
A year or so later, she started getting in trouble with the cops. She was on house arrest as a minor for about five years, and she was arrested as an adult a couple of months after she turned 18. She was using on and off throughout that time.
Her boyfriend at the time was in a gang, which she wanted to join. To be initiated, she’d have to get her face tattooed, he told her. She decided during this stage of her life to do it. At the time she didn’t think much of it. Alyssa already had a record with the police and didn’t see her life pivoting when she agreed to tattoo her face. Today, she is two years sober and realizes that her face tattoo is the only thing holding her back.
Pill addiction is fairly common for Americans with Alyssa’s background.
Though her tattoos are unusual, her story is not. Pill addiction, which can be detrimental on its own, can easily lead to other devastating addictions. Both are all too common in the Rust Belt and countless communities across the United States. A full 19.7 million Americans age 12 and older were dealing with a substance use disorder in 2017, and mental health issues can make people more susceptible to substance use, reports the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH).
“Now, I am just normal.”
Alyssa’s full-face skull tattoo can look intimidating at first glance. The Pittsburgh Removery had just started accepting clients through the INK-nitiative program when she came in. “We were a little bit intimidated at first,” says Becca, a technician who has been working with her. Becca’s initial reaction was, “I’ve never seen so many tattoos on someone’s face,” she remarks. “We didn’t know what her background was; why she went to jail.” But as they talked with Alyssa, their concerns melted away.
“She’s so sweet. She’s funny,” says Becca. “When she came in, you could tell she was nervous, too. It’s a commitment for her. She’s never done tattoo removal before. We were nervous; she was nervous, but we warmed up to each other.”
Becca has gained exposure to people she wouldn’t ordinarily meet through the INK-nitiative program, she says. “I was very sheltered growing up, and it’s given me a chance to see people in a different light. They’re good people that want to change, and we’re just trying to help them,” she explains.
Removing the heavy stigma of face tattoos
Now 29, Alyssa is focused on living a normal life these days. “I’ve already kind of worked on healing,” she says. “More now than ever, I just want to feel as close to whatever ‘normal’ is as possible.” But feeling “normal” in public is tough with a face tattoo—especially one as unusual as hers. “I go into a store, and people stare at me. It makes me uncomfortable,” says Alyssa.
Some people say they love her tattoos; others won’t even talk to her. “I want to be looked at like a normal person. I live my life just like everybody else,” she says. “I still work a job, have a boyfriend, have friends, and cook dinner,” she says. “I live a fairly normal life besides people staring at me all the time.”
Her tattoos also affect her ability to get work. She wants to go back to school for CNC machining. “I feel like once the tattoos are removed, better job opportunities will present themselves for me,” she says.
Empowerment and recovery
Tattoo removal is often the final step in a journey of empowerment and self-discovery. Removing a tattoo that reminds you of a painful past can allow you to fully step into the new life you’re creating.
Tattoo removal is empowering for the technician as well. At Removery, we’re grateful that we have the opportunity to feel uplifted by helping others transform their lives. Seeing the major transformations our clients in the INK-nitiative are making and playing a small part in them is one of the most rewarding aspects of our work.
If you feel like your life has gotten out of control, you don’t have to struggle onward alone. “Don’t be afraid to reach out. There are plenty of people that would love to help. There are plenty of people that will help,” says Alyssa. Reaching out and finding help is the most empowering thing you can do to move forward.
“For a very long time, I felt like I wasn’t free. Like I had to live a certain way because of things that were going on in my life with addiction and self-harm,” says Alyssa. “And now, I feel like I don’t have to live like that anymore. I can just live my life—I’m finally free.”
“What people have done in their addictions doesn’t define who they are today if they’re in recovery,” she says. She imagines the sense of relief she’ll feel after her last session. “The sky’s the limit; anything’s really possible.”
How do I apply for the INK-nitiative program?
The INK-nitiative program serves people with tattoos from a challenging time in their past that are holding them back from making a fresh start. Many have tattoos in prominent locations like the face, neck, and hands. If you or someone you know fit this description, learn more about the INK-nitiative program.INK-nitiative