By Father Greg J. Boyle, S.J. Founder and Exective Director Homeboy Industries
Frank walked into my office two days after his release from Corcoran State Prison. I had never met him before. Like the 15,000 gang members who walk through our doors at Homeboy Industries each year, wanting to redirect their lives, he was tattooed. Emblazoned on his forehead, filling the entirety of the space like some billboard was, “FUCK THE WORLD.” He looks at me and says, “You know, I’m having a hard time finding a job.” I suggested that perhaps he and I could “put our heads together on this one.” Our tattoo removal program was born that day.
For nearly 30 years now, Homeboy Industries has helped gang members reimagine their lives. At our place, they learn to plan their futures and not their funerals. All the while, Homeboy Industries invites the larger community to invest in these folks, rather than mindlessly incarcerate our way out of our complex, social dilemmas.
Steven Burton’s fine book, Skin Deep reimagines, through digital erasure, the skin of gang members who are all a whole lot more than the most impulsive thing they’ve ever done. When these gang members react to their new, untattooed skin, it doesn’t lead them to some remorse and deep sense of loss at “what could have been.” Rather, it captures the transformation they long for in our community of tenderness here at Homeboy Industries. There is a profound returning to the truth of who they are…exactly what God had in mind when God made them. As well, this book challenges the initial judgment which overwhelms us when we spot a man or woman covered in gang tattoos. It jostles us beyond judgment and the high moral distance that keeps us from each other. Burton leads us right into the awe of their stories, appreciating fully what each has had to carry.
A homegirl said to me once, “At Homeboy, God gets visual.” Much the same happens as you go through this special book. Lines at the margins get erased as surely as these markings on gang members’ skin. Obliterated, in a striking way, is the illusion of our separation…that there is an “us” and “them.” In the lament of a homie…seeing his clean skin…longing for his mom to be alive to see this…is not just a sadness, but the bright promise of inclusion and kinship. The digital erasure is not then a “trick,” but a means to quicken us all to leave behind the judgments that obscure our common call to build a community of kinship, such that God might recognize it. The images in this book are not meant to capture ache and loss, so much as it wants to hold out hope that union with each other is always possible. It is, in fact, how God gets visual.
Gregory J.Boyle, S.J. Founder and Executive Director