Skin deep is a portrait series that seeks to understand the impacts tattoos have on former gang members and people trying to escape the gang life. How we as a society judge ex-gang members with tattoos and ultimately how they judge themselves.
portraits are taken off the participants and their tattoos are digitally removed in before and after images. The before and after images are then presented to the participants, powerful and emotionally charged interviews follow.
I hope this project helps put a very human face on a group of people that are so often demonized by society. By giving them a forum to talk about themselves, families, aspirations for the future and what tattoos mean to them, while the public is educated about the obstacles these individuals must overcome to re-enter society.
Introduction from the book by Steven Burton.
I walked out of the theater stunned…and inspired.
I was there watching G-Dog, a documentary about Father Greg Boyle and the organization he founded to transform the lives of ex-gang members working hard for a second chance. Homeboy Industries—which is now the largest gang intervention program in the U.S.— provides opportunities and acceptance to the men and women who walk through its doors. It hopes to help them achieve the organizational motto: “Jobs Not Jails.”
I was particularly struck watching the tattoo removal services provided to those who want them. The painful and agonizing process takes years to complete but allows participants to erase some of the stigmas of their pasts that make it difficult to move forward. That is when I got the idea.
When I returned home I got to work. I pulled some images of heavily tattooed men off the internet and roughly removed their tattoos with Photoshop to create before and after images.
The next morning, with the images on my phone, I walked into Homeboy Industries for the first time. I met Marcos, Mario, and Francisco who agreed to come to my photo studio and let me take their portraits.
They were skeptical at first, clearly unsure of my agenda, but after awhile they relaxed and started joking around, trying to understand my English accent.
It took me three days to digitally remove their tattoos. It was the first time I had attempted such extreme tattoo removal. When there was no clean skin to copy from I photographed myself and overlaid their skin with mine, then painted in their characteristics over the top of that layer. It was a time-consuming process with only occasional breaks to sit back and marvel at the transformation. It had a strong impact on me, but I kept asking myself, “How are they going to react?” I returned with a journalist to do the first few interviews and set my camera to record. Marcos was first. Fading grey tattoos sprawl across his face and neck. He was partway through the process of having them removed but had not seen himself without tattoos for decades.
I could never have imagined what followed. When we presented him with the two images— first with his portrait, and then, the same picture of him without his tattoos—there was a deep outpouring of emotion. Shock, then laughter at the absurdity of it all, then a solemn moment. The smile disappeared from his face as he reflected on who he was and the person he could be.
From that first interview, I saw how powerful this project could be. This book has been two years in the making with over 400 hours of work digitally retouching 27 individuals and listening to the stories they share. I am excited to now have the opportunity to share their stories with you.
My motive was to help create a platform where each person could talk about themselves, their families, their aspirations for the future, and what tattoos mean for them, but I also hope readers will reflect on the how appearances can be misleading—how judgment can unfairly shape our perceptions of others.
I hope this book will enable people to look beyond tattoos and see those who are so often misunderstood and demonized by society in a new light. And help guide anyone struggling to leave their past behind to see that there is hope for the future.