Photographer Steven Burton helps ex-gang members see effects of tattoo removal

Skin Deep

Marcos Luna, one of the subjects of Skin Deep: Looking Beyond the Tattoos.

In a unique endeavor – soon to be a book – photographer Steven Burton digitally erased the tattoos from portraits of ex-gang members to show what they would look like without the ink. And the results were amazing.

During the two-year project, Skin Deep: Looking Beyond the Tattoos, Burton photographed 26 men and one woman, removed their tattoos using Photoshop and then interviewed them about their lives and how they felt about being tattooed.

It all began when a friend invited Burton to the premier of G-Dog, the documentary about Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries. “I had just moved to L.A. . and knew nothing about gangs, but I was totally overwhelmed by the movie,” he says.

What Burton noticed most was the number of tattoos that adorned the Homeboys’ bodies and how tattoo removal played an important role in the organization’s mission. “I thought, I could take tattoos off with Photoshop and see what happens,” he says.

Excited by the prospect, he produced some sample before-and-after photos and took them to Homeboy the next day to gauge interest. The people he showed them to were impressed, and Skin Deep was on its way.

Photoshopping photos took more than 400 hours

Over a period of six months Burton photographed Homeboy members and some of their friends. Each shoot lasted only about 10 minutes, but Burton spent more than 400 hours to Photoshop the tattoos off of all of his subjects.

He later went back to show the people he photographed their “before-and-after” photos and to interview them so he could include their stories in the book. That was the biggest challenge he faced during the entire project.

“The hardest thing about this book was finding the people I photographed when I returned to L.A. (He was there off and on during the two years.) Some of them had left Homeboy and changed their phone numbers,” he says.

It may have been difficult to find them, but that’s when the project became more meaningful to Burton.

“I take pictures of somebody I don’t know and get to know them through their interviews. And once you get to know someone, the tattoos become less intimidating,” he says.

How subjects see themselves without their tattoos

“But the most interesting part of this project for me is how they see themselves. At first I was so focused on how other people see them. But when they saw the pictures is when I realized it was a pretty powerful concept.”

These portraits, four in all for each subject – a headshot and a full body photo each with and without tattoos – are paired with an interview in the upcoming book.

The interviews, some as long as 2,000 words, introduce the ex-gang members as real people, and bring to life their dreams and ambitions.

“They’re fascinating, amazing interviews,” says Burton. “I was so much more interested in where they want to go in their lives and how they have changed than the crimes they committed, because that’s more relevant. The interviews are about their aspirations and hopes. They’re about what the tattoos mean to them, the challenges they face and how they deal with day-to-day life.”

And showing the photos to his subjects was also an incredible experience for Burton. Although he was concerned that his subjects would be depressed, that didn’t happen.

“There was sadness when they saw the pictures and amusement as well. It was a reflective experience,” he says. “Many things passed through their minds. They wondered if their chances in life would be different if they didn’t look like this. The tattoos reflect the life they’ve been through.”

Even before they were able to see themselves without tattoos, 90 percent of his subjects had already decided to get their tattoos removed. Two of the men in the book have since been shot and killed by the police.

powerHouse Books to release Skin Deep in October

Although he’d like to continue the project, possibly taking it to prisons, Burton will remain busy with his photography business and promoting the book, which will be released in October by powerHouse Books.

The experience taught him a great deal and made him reevaluate his first impressions of people who may, at first glance, look very different from others. And his tattooed subjects inspired him.

“I learned about the incredible courage it takes to change your life. If these people can do what they do, then we have no excuses. They come from a pretty abusive background, and to actually change themselves and find work is incredibly humbling,” he says. “But mainly, I learned that they’re human beings like everyone else.”

When published this fall, Skin Deep: Looking Beyond the Tattoos will be available on Burton’s website, and through powerHouse Books, Barnes & Noble and Amazon.

Group of Kentucky friends creates free tattoo-removal program for ex-offenders

Tattoo Removal Ink

Armando Diaz of Astanza Laser’s New Look Laser College trains Tattoo Removal Ink volunteers to do tattoo removal procedures.

Thanks to the free and low-cost tattoo removal program directory on our website, we’ve been in touch with quite a few people who provide this service.

But rarely have we come across a story quite like that of Jo Martin of Florence, Ky. She rallied a group of friends, got them all to learn how to use a laser device and started Tattoo Removal Ink, a free tattoo removal service, all within the space of a year.

Now it’s up and running – the group performed 100 free procedures from mid-January to mid-February, their first month in business. And she’s still a bit in awe about how it all came about.

Three-and-a-half years ago after retiring from a 30-year career with AT&T and still dealing with the sudden death of her husband several years before that, Martin was approached by a woman at her church and asked if she’d like to tutor at the local jail.

“I wanted to say no, but yes came out of my mouth,” she says. At first it was rather daunting. “I was never exposed to that kind of environment and had never even been inside of a jail.”

Once she began volunteering, Martin was shocked to see the tattoos on some of the inmates and thought, “How could they get a job with those tattoos on their face?” She mentioned it to a friend, and that friend encouraged her to go hear Father Greg Boyle, the Jesuit priest who heads up Homeboy Industries and who was speaking at a university not too far away.

Inspired by Father Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries

She approached Father Boyle after his speech, and he invited her to come to Los Angeles to check out Homeboy, and she did. ”I fell in love with what Father Boyle was doing and said we could do it too,” she says.

Martin went home, put together a board, and filed the articles of incorporation and the application to be a nonprofit. Within 35 days it had been approved. Her daughter’s mother-in-law, a doctor, agreed to be the medical director.

A deeply religious woman who attends mass everyday, Martin feels it’s the work of God. “Every time I said to God that I’d done something, he gave me an even bigger thing. It all just started falling into place.”

She took some of the insurance proceeds from her husband’s death and bought a $60,000 laser device. (Astanza Laser gave her a $15,000 discount on one of its machines.) A doctor friend and his wife, a nurse, along with another nurse agreed to join the board. She also got a CPA to volunteer.

Martin put Tattoo Removal Ink together on her own with friends and family

“Along the way I met with a whole bunch of agencies in Cincinnati and northern Kentucky – all people who deal with returning citizens,” Martin says. “Everybody loved the idea, but nobody wanted anything to do with it. I just did it on my own with friends and family and my husband’s money. He would have loved it.”

She gathered her group of two doctors, two nurses, two other friends and herself together, adopted the name Tattoo Removal Ink, and in early January a representative of Astanza Laser’s New Look Laser College arrived to conduct a two-day training course. Soon after that, they began their first official procedures in a 900 square-foot rented office space.

Service is by appointment only and comes through referrals from the jail, parole and probation, and inquiries on their website, which have dramatically increased thanks to publicity from a local television news story. The criteria for clients is that they must have been formerly incarcerated, and their tattoos must be on the face, neck or sometimes on an arm – if the person has a construction job and will wear T-shirts in the summertime.

Plans for pre-release tattoo removal programs in local prisons

The program is up and running, but the fundraising is still in the works. Expenses include $1,000 per month for rent, $600 per year for insurance and $6,000 per year for maintenance on the laser device (starting next year).

Board members have chipped in money for the rent and $10,000 for operations. Another board member donated $1,000, and other people have written checks for $250 here and there, says Martin. The hospital of one of the doctors on her board donated a treatment table.

Martin has applied for $5,000 grants from each of her three local counties and is planning to search for other grant opportunities.

By the end of the year she hopes to begin tattoo removals inside the jail where she volunteers. And one of her grade school classmates, who learned about the program through Facebook, plans to retire and be a laser technician at the jail.

The next step is to get lasers inside the area’s two other correctional facilities and start a GED program at the building where Tattoo Removal Ink operates. That way people can study for the GED and get their tattoos removed at the same time and place, which appeals to Martin who tutors inmates so they can pass the GED.

While she originally was hesitant to even enter a jail, working with inmates and returning citizen’s tattoos has become Martin’s passion and new purpose in life.

“This has been so much fun. I love project managing it. And I love the people we’ve been taking tattoos off of,” she says.

Dave’s Killer Bread Foundation’s Second Chance Summit tackles ex-offender employment issues

Dave's Killer Bread Foundation'sThe Dave’s Killer Bread Foundation brought together business, nonprofit and government leaders at its Second Chance Summit in San Francisco in early December. The goal: to educate attendees about the opportunities and resources available for employing people with criminal backgrounds

This was the organization’s fourth summit. Two others took place in Portland in 2014 and 2015, and the third in New York City earlier this year.

Speakers at the San Francisco event:
  • San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, who discussed how gaining housing and employment are two key elements in helping second chance employees find success and ultimately in lowering recidivism rates. Providing employment opportunities makes a community safer by steering people away from committing crimes.
  • Jessica Jackson Sloan, the national director and co-founder of #cut50, who spoke about her personal experience with incarceration.
  • Joe DeLoss, founder of Hot Chicken Takeover in Columbus, Ohio, who discussed being a second chance/fair chance employer. He explained how at HCT, the fact that everyone starts at the bottom and the benefits offered speak to what employees actually need are what makes his business successful. The background check conducted of his employees is more than just looking at someone’s record but an honesty check. It makes sure that employees are open and honest about their past and know that it will not count against them. Currently, 68% of his staff is second chance employees, and he hopes to see that number grow in the future.
  • Seth Sundberg, founder of snack food company Prison Bars, who talked about his experience as a second chance employee and employer.
  • Van Jones, president and co-founder of The Dream Corps and #cut50, who gave the keynote address, encouraging people and companies to take a risk and hire second chance employees. Do not waste genius and make a difference in someone’s life by giving them a chance, he said.
Panels included second chance employers and employees

In addition to the speakers, panels addressed various issues related to second-chance employment.

A panel of second chance employees discussed their work experiences and how they got to where they are today. They all agreed that one of the things they were most afraid of in applying for a job was the fear of rejection because of their past. However, they were fortunate to find organizations to help them. To those on the panel, receiving a second chance means everything; it gives them somewhere positive to go, a way to provide for their families and hope. One of the most important ideas expressed during the panel session was that knowing, and learning to own, that the person you were in the past is not the person you are today.

The second chance employee panel, moderated by Paul Solomon, executive director of Sponsors, Inc., included Andre Eddings, assistant supervisor of the Wrap Department of Dave’s Killer Bread; Ruth Butler, administrative assistant at Homeboy Industries; Melissa Brewster, community engagement manager at Luminalt Solar; and Vanessa Velasquez.

Another panel consisted of employers. Panelists stressed that being a second chance employer is not something that most people think they can handle. What employers should know is that they need to take the time to get to know the people they are working with and to invest in their community. By providing jobs, they are helping the community, especially those looking for a second chance. They discussed how employers can help their second chance employers and how it can benefit them in the process.

Led by David Israel, founder of Pop! Gourmet Foods, the panel members included Ronnie Elrod, director of manufacturing for Dave’s Killer Bread; John Krause, owner of Big House Beans; Audrey Holmes, director of workforce development for Homeboy Industries; and Emma Rosenbush, general manager of Cala Restaurant.

Workshops dealt with a variety of issues

Six afternoon workshops focused on different ways employers and organizations that work with second chance employees can help them. The sessions also debunked some of the legal and insurance myths concerning employing second chance employees. Topics included getting leadership buy-in, employer insights for nonprofits, building a talent pipeline, best hiring practices and helping employees go from good to great through engagement.

The Dave’s Killer Bread Foundation focuses on empowering second chance employment. With the help of its Second Chance Playbook, available online free of charge, the organization is working on providing the resources necessary to teach companies about the benefits of hiring second chance employees.

Other organizations involved in planning and hosting the summit include #cut50, which aims to cut the prison population in half in the next 10 years, and REDF, which works to create job opportunities and pathways for those who have barriers to employment.

redf.org

Global Homeboy Network Gathering scheduled for August

Global Homeboy Network

The Global Homeboy Network Gathering in L.A. in August will include optional tours of Homeboy Industries facilities.

The third annual Global Homeboy Network Gathering will take place August 7-9, 2016, at The California Endowment in Los Angeles.

The event attracts about 200 people each year from throughout the U.S. and around the world who have been inspired by Homeboy Industries in their own work and organizations.

The Network, which now includes more than 85 organizations, was created with the first conference in 2014 to help other organizations spread the Homeboy model to locations beyond Los Angeles.

This year’s gathering will begin with a welcome reception at the Homegirl Café late Sunday afternoon. The next two days will include workshops on such topics as social entrepreneurial programs and development, fundraising and development, peer navigation and membership, and identity and re-identification.

Hotel rooms have been blocked at the Sheraton Los Angeles Downtown Hotel and Doubletree by Hilton on South Los Angeles Street and listed under “Homeboy Industries.”

Those interested in participating in the gathering can register on the Homeboy Industries website.

The cost to attend is:

  • $150 for those who register before June 24
  • $200 for those who register between June 25 and July 22
  • $225 late registration between July 23 and August 1

Founded in 1988 by Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest who still runs the organization, Homeboy Industries is considered one of the world’s largest and most successful reentry and gang intervention programs. It operates a variety of social enterprises including a bakery, café, silkscreen and embroidery business, and a diner at Los Angeles City Hall.