For decades now tattoos have been potent symbols of the Los Angeles gang-life scene. The black and white tattoos with recognizable gang symbols appear on members' faces, necks and all over their bodies, making their gang affiliation immediately clear to whomever crosses their path. This can mean the difference between life and death on the streets, and just as often, in prison.

What does this prominently placed imagery mean for those men and women who somehow extricate themselves from gang life or are released from prison or want to separate themselves from the gang and start life anew? The very tattoos which may have helped guard against the constant threat of rival gangs now bar many ex-gang members from employment, life without harassment, and the freedom to move on from a past they have worked hard to overcome.

Skin Deep is a photography project that seeks to show the effects of this ongoing gang conflict in Los Angeles. Photographer Steven Burton set out to photograph realistic portraits of former gang members who are trying to escape the revolving door of death and prison. "I started this project to understand the effects tattoos have on people escaping the gangs, how they are judged by society and ultimately how they judge themselves.

 

“I look like I finally let go of a lot of stuff that I had on me. I want people to see me for me. Not to see my tattoos first. My tattoos don’t say nothing about me no more. It is a past life.”-Francisco Flores

 

 

For these men and women, the aftermath of gang life is not only carried within--it is also scrawled across their faces and bodies. Skin Deep uniquely highlights the impact tattoos have on the way a person is perceived by showing what each participant might look like without them.

Utilizing before and, thanks to the advantages of Photoshop, after photographs, these men and women got a chance to see what they'd look like without the inked visual armor. After the bare images were presented to each, they were asked to talk about themselves and their families, what tattoos represent to them, and their aspirations for the future.

 

 

Seeing themselves without tattoos--many for the first time in decades--naturally brought about a wide range of emotions, recollections, hopes, and dreams, with responses such as: "I am shocked. I don't know what to say about this. I am going to give this to my mom, she is going to be so happy." "I think this guy in the pictures would judge the one with tattoos right off the top." "That's crazy, that looks real crazy. Those came out cool man! I think I like it better without the tattoos."

 

 

Burton met his subjects thanks to Father Greg Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries in LA, and the entire project is inspired by his tireless work to help rehabilitate these former gang members and give them all a crucial second chance in life. Skin Deep offers a chance to expose the realities these individuals face when

 

 

trying to rebuild their lives and re-enter society. As importantly, for the public, the project provokes consideration regarding how society perceives and judges people with tattoos and violent pasts and seeks to garner empathy for those caught in the crosshairs of gang life as they try to change their futures. 

 

 

"Finally getting on track again. It feels good to just to be living life, you know.  I woke up today not in Jail, I woke up today not in a casket. I woke up today for another day. Every day has promise, you know. Just breathing in the fresh air. Going outside and really looking at it, life is beautiful.

 

 

I say this one thing I am trying to change. Then I’ll go and still kick it (with me homeboys) for a bit. Have a beer, talk chitchat and I’ll be gone. But who knows? I’ll be there one day chit chatting and the cops raid it, I’ll go to jail for gang banging. Or someone will do a drive by and I’ll get shot. Anything can happen. I’m struggling with completely letting go of that life. It’s hard, it’s just hard, you  know." - Erin

 

"My son brings me joy. I love to see my boy my 5-year-old son. I love him to death. I would do anything for him. I just don’t want him to do nothing. He is already tripping on my tattoos and stuff why I have horns and stuff. I want to tell him like; I don’t know what to tell him. Tell my son don’t pay any attention to it.

"My son brings me joy. I love to see my boy my 5-year-old son. I love him to death. I would do anything for him. I just don’t want him to do nothing. He is already tripping on my tattoos and stuff why I have horns and stuff. I want to tell him like; I don’t know what to tell him. Tell my son don’t pay any attention to it.

Just I don’t know what to tell a 5 year old you know. Like I know he really doesn’t know, but he is going to know when he gets older man. 

Damn, I just hope he… Sometimes… I just think, don’t be around him and he won’t be like me you know. He won’t be nothing like me because he won’t see me like I am. But then again a kid wants their dad in their life. He is going to want me; he is going to want to know who I am and stuff so it’s just like, it’s kind of hard. But my son he brings me joy." - David Williams

 

"Stereotyping is always going to be there like with the tattoos. I don’t want you rolling up your window when you see me coming down the street. It’s like come on man! It’s like I don’t need what you got. You don’t need to do all that. You know what I mean? I’m just passing right by you. I actually don’t even see you like that." - Calvin Hastings R.I.P

 

"Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow. I am just living day-by-day, just hoping for the best ,you know, move forward. I have to support myself, hopefully out for the good, you know." - Vinson Ramos R.I.P.

 

 

"But if I don’t have a job, it’s just like I told Father G in the beginning. If you can’t help me with a job, this is my last resort. I am going to have to do what I have to do. If that means having to risk going back to prison, then I am going to have to take that risk. 

He helped me .Father G is a blessing.  A lot of people have a lot of love and a lot of respect for Father G, you know. This place (Homeboy Industries) is made to help us. Father G. helping me felt good because no one else has ever been there to help me like that." - Davis Pina

 

 

"I am really institutionalized since I was a kid and it is embarrassing because since I was like what 10-11 since that age till now I have been in and out of jail. It’s all I know,  selling drugs, gang banging you know what I mean.

I really don’t know how to live a regular life. I am trying to live now, you know what I mean.

My daughter is 5 going to be 6 next month, she thinks I am her personal coloring book. When I first came home and I had this on me, she did nothing really she new who I was so, she asked me if she could color me. I said yeah go ahead." - Phillip Mendoa

 

 

My daughter is 5 going to be 6 next month, she thinks I am her personal coloring book. When I first came home and I had this on me, she did nothing really she new who I was so, she asked me if she could color me. I said yeah go ahead." - Phillip Mendosa

 

 

"Usually, Father Greg helps, but he said to me this time, he said, “We don’t have the funds, I can give you a car and I can give you a job but that is not going to change what is going on with you. It’s not going to change the issues you are going through. The addiction you are going through, that isn’t going to change it. You have to surrender, you have to retreat. You have to get your mind right again, you have to get clean. Deal with you problems and get them out of the way, fix yourself, repair yourself.”

 

 

And he was right, you know. Hearing that from him, Father Greg telling me you know, “Hey let it go, let the car go.” And I was like you know man, you are right; just let it go, let it go. And I was like, all right. I am going to let it go. I am going to go to rehab. He said, “After those 90 days I promise you, I give you my word, everything is going to fall back in to place.” And I believe him." - Matthew Perez

 

 

“The tattoos on my eyelids, well it says the end you know… I hope I live for a very long long time. It kind of like scares me, I have more to give to the community, to help out and I want to see my kids grow. I want to see my grand-kids. This place (Homeboy Industries) changed me a lot. Every time I walk through these doors I let God come in first then I just come in behind him, let him take over.

But it’s real hard for me out there (in everyday life), at Homeboy Industries they respect me, they know who I am.

People stare at me in the streets a lot. I am a good person you know, I have a good heart. People who don’t know me probably think I am smoking drugs, have a gun or that I am violent, but I am not like that no more. I left that all behind…I left all of that behind.” -Mario Lundes

 

Two years and nearly 400 hours of re-touching to complete the series, which includes the side by side depictions , along with the harrowing but hopefully stories shared by each person portrayed.

I hope this project will spread awareness and promote empathy for the struggles heavily tattooed gang members have to go through to escape the gangs and their situation in search of something better...Hope. 

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