Ex-Gang Members Shed Their Tattoos In Thought-Provoking Photo Series

“Normally fear and judgement comes from a lack of knowledge."

To get to the heart of a person, one must look beyond skin deep. 

Men and women — who are trying to escape their gangs or have already left, and desire to lead normal lives — find it difficult to move past their previous existence because their body ink is a constant reminder to them and society at large.

Photographer Steven Burton is working to change that.  

In his book Skin Deep, Burton wanted to alter the way people perceive heavily tattooed ex-gang members by digitally removing their tattoos and essentially freeing them, even if just for a moment, from the blueprint of a life they no longer want to be a prisoner of.

Marcus Luna, Photo Credit: Steven Burton

“By showing them without their gang tattoos, I hope it will help humanize a culture that is so easily and often demonized by society by taking away the initial fear that the tattoos create, allowing you to get to know the subjects through their interviews,” Burton tells A Plus.

Erin Echavarria, Photo Credit: Steven Burton
Erin Echavarria, Photo Credit: Steven Burton

Burton's work began shortly after a friend took him to see the 2012 documentary G-Dog by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Freida Lee Mock, which told the story of Rev. Gregory J. Boyle, the founder and executive director of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation, and re-entry program in the world.

"After watching the documentary, I felt I had to do something to help spread awareness of the work done at Homeboy Industries," Burton says. "The concept came to me when I watched the homeboys (and homegirls) going through the tattoo removal process."

Calvin Hastings, Photo Credit: Steven Burton

Burton photographed 27 subjects in order to allow people to see beyond the tattoos, and to create empathy and understanding for the situation the ex-gang members are going through. 

"The idea was to digitally remove the tattoos, present the before-and-after photos to the subjects, and see how they would react. The subjects in the book are fighting to escape gang life or in some cases have managed to achieve that, but their tattoos still tell people that they are gang members," Burton says. "Walking down the street they are targeted not only by other gang members, but also the police. Finding employment is very difficult, which makes the challenge of leaving the gang even more difficult." 

Samuel Gonzalez, Photo Credit: Steven Burton
Samuel Gonzalez, Photo Credit: Steven Burton

"I'll sit down on the bus and no one will want to sit next to me," Dennis Zamdran, a participant in the project, says in a video. "I'm coming home from work … but there's always going to be that judgment."

Through his powerful images, Burton aims to steer viewers' attention from the gang life the subjects once led, and instead focus on the courage and bravery it took for them to leave. 

“Normally fear and judgement comes from a lack of knowledge,” Burton says. "I believe if you fear something you should take the time to understand it.”

Dennis Zamdran, Photo Credit: Steven Burton

Prior to the big reveal, Burton knew the images would be shocking for the subjects to see, "but I didn't realize the full impact these photos would have on them, nor was I aware of the kind of impact their reactions would have on me. It was a little surprising for everyone." 

You can watch some of their reactions in the video below: