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How Photoshop helped ex-gang members gain a new sense of identity




Steven Burton
Steven Burton
Steven Burton
Steven Burton
Steven Burton
Steven Burton
Steven Burton
Steven Burton
Steven Burton
Steven Burton
Steven Burton
Steven Burton
Steven Burton
Steven Burton
Steven Burton
Steven Burton
Steven Burton
Steven Burton
Steven Burton
Steven Burton
Steven Burton
Steven Burton
Steven Burton
Steven Burton
Steven Burton


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You might have heard of Homeboy Industries, the downtown L.A. based group that helps at-risk youth and former gang members. Homeboy offers a variety of free programs such as mental health counseling, work-readiness training and even tattoo removal.

How those tattoos can change someone's self-image is the subject of a book project that turns the tables on gang life. "Skin Deep" features photographs of heavily tattooed ex-gang members before and after their ink has been removed using Photoshop. 

When the subjects see the images of their tattoo-free skin, their reaction is emotional and powerful.

Steven Burton is a photographer and the mind behind the project, which features the photographs of 27 homeboys and homegirls.

Francisco Flores is one of them.

Speaking with Take Two's A Martinez, Flores recalled his life before all the ink. "I grew up in South Central. It was a rough life. Both parents were addicts so I kind of had to fend for myself for most of my life," Flores said, "So, at a young age I got in trouble...then I went to prison. Once I got out of prison my parole officer was adamant about me going to Homeboy industries to get tattoo removal and that's how I started..."

Before he began the removal process, Flores speculates he had over a thousand tattoos all over his body including his face. His eyebrows, eyelids, lips, jawline and cheeks were all covered with ink. He said the sight of him would put people on edge.

"I wouldn't be able to walk up to people," Flores laughed, "I'd be walking on the street and I'll have somebody just jump away from me and grab their purse or grab their kids....I'm like, 'I'm not going to do nothing to your kid, I'm just like you.'"

It was around this time that photographer Steven Burton came into the picture. He was at Homeboy Industries to view a documentary about the organization's founder when he became drawn to the tattoo removal program. He set out to photograph as many 'homeboys' and 'homegirls' as he could.

"The actual photographs themselves didn't take too long, it was like a couple of days. The Photoshop took a long time depending on who I was Photoshopping," Burton said of the project's timeline, "If you could actually see any skin...a lot of times I'd have to take parts of my own skin and then Photoshop them onto him...so in total it took around 400 hours, but then after that the hardest thing was actually to find people again." 

Once everyone was tracked down, they were shown the photographs and the reactions were raw and insightful.

Francisco reaction

In Francisco's initial reaction video, he says he'd rather be labeled a fat guy than a cholo. 'Cholo' is Spanish slang for thug or gangster, and a term that Francisco wants nothing to do with any longer.

"Cholo is just...I'm not that no more. It was my past, but it's not me no more and I still get labeled as that gang member, and it's like...I'm not a gang member no more, I'm a father...."

The tattoo-less images of Francisco had the most impact on his children. He has five, and he explained why they are the main motivation for the tattoo removal.

"I just want to show my kids something different. I just don't want them to see the gang side and be like 'Oh, what's that?' and have them go through it again and be like 'Oh I was gone for so many years out of your life, ' Francisco explained, "And they remember that and then it puts them in a place I don't want them to be. I want them to be happy and remember the good times and not go back and reminisce about the past and all the harsh things that I did and...I wasn't a good person." 

To hear the full interview, click the blue play button above.