One photographer is hoping to counter misconceptions about former gang members by showing what they’d look like without the tattoos for which people often misjudge them.
In the photo series ”Skin Deep,” Steven Burton takes images of former gang members, and digitally alters them to remove the tattoos, placing the before-and-after images side by side.
“I did it for people to not be intimidated by gang tattoos, so they take time to listen to people’s stories,” Burton said. “People judge them just walking toward them, but you don’t know them, you don’t know their situation.”
In a new book coming out this fall, Burton pairs the images with testimonies from the former gang members who are seeing themselves for the first time without any tattoos ― some for the first time in decades.
“I think I would be more accepted if I looked like this, without nothing on my face or my arms,” Francisco Flores, a former gang member, said in a book preview sent to HuffPost. “More acceptance from employers and certain people, I wouldn’t get judged as bad.”
Burton met the people featured in the series ― who are largely Latino and based in Los Angeles ― through Homeboy Industries. It’s a nonprofit that helps people who have left gangs or prison by providing services like parenting classes, job training, employment, as well as free tattoo removal.
People who have been involved with gangs sometimes get tattoos to mark their affiliation. Once they decide to leave that life behind, tattoos can be a major barrier to employment, with potential employers pre-judging candidates. But tattoo removal is painful and can be expensive, potentially taking years and costing thousands of dollars.
Flores, who has been getting his gang tattoos gradually removed over the past five years, said that when it came to finding a job, his tattoos gave him “a hassle.”
“A lot of people think I’m a bad person ― they see me, they think ‘He’s gonna rob us’ or is somebody bad,” Flores told HuffPost. “I want people to see the person that I am, not the one they think they see. I’m really a really nice guy.”
Flores joined a gang at age 11, after he was kicked out of his house and was living on the streets. He then struggled with heroin addiction later in life and was in and out of prison for years. Now he’s been clean since 2010 and is a youth advocate with Homeboy Industries, speaking to kids in school about his past experience with gangs and drugs, and warning them against it.
“The first people to take me in was [the gang], and it felt like a family ― but it was fake love,” Flores told HuffPost. “But [the students] don’t want to hear it from someone who hasn’t been through the struggle.”
Flores noted that he will be keeping some tattoos: ones of his kids, and those that reflect his Mexican heritage.
Most of the subjects in the “Skin Deep” series are somewhere in the process of getting their gang tattoos removed, for a wide range of reasons, Burton said.
After he showed them their portraits with their tattoos photoshopped out, some would laugh at first, but then get contemplative and even emotional.
“At first I was surprised ― I haven’t seen myself like that in years, it caught me off guard,” Flores told HuffPost. “But after all the pain I’ve gone through, it was kind of nice.”
The most common response, according to Burton, was, “I’m going to show this to my mom.”
It took Burton two years and around 400 hours to create the photo series, from re-touching the photos to capturing the testimonies, according to his website. A portion of the profits from the upcoming book will go to Homeboy Industries, and some to continuing the “Skin Deep” project.
“Especially right now when everybody is so scared of everybody, I hope this allows us to have more empathy,” Burton told HuffPost. “It’s really hard to judge somebody if you know them.”
You can see more images from the “Skin Deep” series below, or on Burton’s website.