Digital “Before and After” Photos Reveal What Former Gang Members Look Like Without Tattoos


Tattoos are notoriously tricky to remove, so even if you despise your body art, chances are it will still stay with you forever. This can alter the perception of yourself, and at times, it seems like your identity is permanently embedded just like the ink. Photographer Steven Burton is helping people imagine themselves differently by digitally removing their tattoos. His series Skin Deep focuses on 28 former gang members and incarcerated individuals—people who are covered from head to toe in tattoos—and reveals how they look without all the ink.

Skin Deep is inspired by Reverend Gregory J. Boyle (aka G-Dog), the director of Homeboy Industries. It’s a Los Angeles-based gang intervention, rehabilitation, and reentry program that offers classes, employment counseling, substance abuse support, and more. They also pay for laser tattoo removal treatment for 950 clients a month—this service, in particular, is valuable, because it allows people to be seen for more than their past.

Burton’s digital solution works with the men and women using Homeboy Industries services. In addition to shooting their portraits, he also lent an ear. “I didn't go in with any preconceived ideas of what I was after,” Burton told Upworthy. “I just wanted it to be honest and open, where they get to talk about their lives.” This compassion lead to revealing personal interviews about their lives before and after the gang.

“The cards they were dealt in the beginning really set the course for their life in the gang. It's never really been so much of a choice for a lot of these people,” Burton explained. “But what's beautiful about the people I talk to is that they've made the choice to leave the gang, and it's a difficult one.”

Burton has taken his interviews and more than 400 hours of work in Photoshop and compiled it into a book called Skin Deep: Looking Beyond the Tattoos. He’s now raising money on Kickstarter to get it published.

Above: Vinson Ramos

Mario Lundes

David Williams

Phillip Mendoza

Marcos Luna

Erin Echavarria

August Lopez

Samuel Gonzalez

Steven Burton: Website | Facebook | Instagram | Kickstarter
via [Upworthy]

My Modern Met granted permission to use photos by Steven Burton.

Sara Barnes

Sara Barnes is a Staff Editor at My Modern Met, Manager of My Modern Met Store, and co-host of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. As an illustrator and writer living in Seattle, she chronicles illustration, embroidery, and beyond through her blog Brown Paper Bag and Instagram @brwnpaperbag. She wrote a book about embroidery artist Sarah K. Benning titled 'Embroidered Life' that was published by Chronicle Books in 2019. Sara is a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art. She earned her BFA in Illustration in 2008 and MFA in Illustration Practice in 2013.
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