It’s only a matter of time before the most desperately cool of the millennial hipsteratti look at the sagging, green skin on their aging arms and think, “Why did I cover my body in tattoos, again?” But for others, tattoos represent much more than a bad decision made in the heat of a passing fad: they can be a constant reminder of a painful past, and a condemnation to relive the consequences of poor decisions each and every day.
At least that’s the case for the dozens of individuals profiled in the Skin Deep photo project, which showcases portraits of ex-gang members side-by-side with retouched versions free of the characteristic tattoos that crowd their fingers, forearms, necks, and faces. Created by photographer Steven Burton, the idea of Skin Deep is to “create empathy and understanding” for the struggle of these men, all of whom who seek to reinvent themselves while still bearing the prominent signifiers of gang life.
Shot in collaboration with LA’s Homeboy Industries, Skin Deep also highlights the organization’s free tattoo removal initiative, which covers the otherwise prohibitive costs of the procedure for up to 3,000 individuals each month. But while this process can offer an important symbolic fresh start, it is also long and painful; leaving folks to wrestle each day with the stigma of gang tattoos in the meantime.
An emotional video released as part of the project’s recent crowdfunding campaign shows the powerful impact that this erasure can have, as the subjects featured in Skin Deep confront their retouched portraits for the first time. Burton spent over 400 painstaking hours poring over the details of each photos to achieve an uncanny level of realism, and the effect on the participants is palpable. Moved by the alternate reality proposed by the images, they begin to open up about their regrets, doubts, hopes for the future, and the continued discrimination they face as a consequence of their tattoos.
It’s a moving reminder that leaving one’s past behind and beginning anew is not as easy as tired platitudes and self-help manuals lead us to believe. But even through this difficulty, there’s always hope. For more features and updates on the Skin Deep project, follow Steven Burton on Instagram.