For those looking to escape Los Angeles gang life, leaving a past of crime can be far more difficult than simply having willpower.
Many such individuals are inked with symbols which signify affiliation to a gang. These black and white tattoos are visible to prospective employers and co-workers, and can frighten strangers on the street.
Even after they have chosen to move away from gang life, their tattoos still remain; affecting their chances of employment and assimilation into lawful society.
A thought provoking photography project by UK photographer Steven Burton is now highlighting this under-discussed struggle; with the hopes of changing attitudes towards the individuals beneath the ink.
Burton photographed former gang members who were covered in stigmatising tattoos. He then used photoshop to create a second photograph for each participant; this time without the tattoos.
The former gang members were given both the original and the doctored photograph, and were asked about how they felt looking at both images side by side.
The photographs have been collected into a book – Skin Deep: Looking Beyond the Tattoos – which includes a foreword from founder of LA’s Homeboy Industries, Father Greg Boyle.
According to the book’s synopsis:
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.
Emotional footage has emerged of these former gang members examining photoshopped images of themselves free from their tattoos.
The edited pictures appear to depict completely different people; giving the former gang members a poignant look at what they may have looked like had their life turned out differently.
Comparing the two images, one man admitted:
Like right here makes me feel like just a normal bystander. Like a normal guy. And right here it makes me feel like all the sh*t I’ve been through.
Seeing all these years on my back. You know, the tattoos I’ve done in jail. The prison bars, the shields you earn in prison […] I regret everything.
Another man spoke about the heartbreaking dillema of explaining his tattoos to his young son:
My five-year-old boy, I love him to death man. I’d do anything for him. I just don’t want him to do that. He’s already checking out my tattoos. He’s saying ‘why do you have horns?’ and stuff like that.
F*ck, it’s hard to tell him like. I don’t know what to tell a five-year-old, you know? Sometimes I think in my head like maybe if I just don’t be around him like he won’t be like me, you know?
Like he won’t be nothing like me, ’cause he won’t see me as I am.
Many people have sympathised with the former gang members’ longing to move beyond their respective pasts; hoping they will be given a chance to redeem themselves.
One person said:
They should give these men a second chance at life. Help then remove all those tattoos, that way they can learn how to be a ‘normal’ individual in society and not feel secluded.
Seems like some of those guys really regret their wrong doings.
That’s sad these lads are a victim of their circumstances. They come from poverty believing that being in a gang will make them money they may be do not ever believe that they will actually come to something so they join the crowd.
I believe this is the problem in society right now we are not giving these kids self-esteem not showing them there is a way out of their troubles.
You can purchase this powerful book here.
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Jules studied English Literature with Creative Writing at Lancaster University before earning her masters in International Relations at Leiden University in The Netherlands (Hoi!). She then trained as a journalist through News Associates in Manchester. Jules has previously worked as a mental health blogger, copywriter and freelancer for various publications.