Photos by Daniel Ross
The Homeboy Industries building in downtown Los Angeles is a many-roomed rabbit warren: a bakery, a shop, rooms for counselling, rooms for job training, rooms for schooling, rooms for all sorts of things, all contained within the glass walls.
But the most popular room at Homebody Industries, a rehabilitation centre for former gang members and inmates, isn't any of those. A surprising number of those who arrive there pass straight through to a small waiting room near the back. Past the waiting room are two farther doors, behind which you can hear the slapping sounds of tattoo-removal machines.
“Colocio, Colocio,” the guy in the waiting room's reception desk muttered, half to himself, his eyes fixed on a computer screen. “You haven’t been here for a while, have you?”
“Maybe about four years,” Luis Colocio admitted, taking a form, then a seat.
That afternoon was the fourth time I’d hung out with Luis, who had been a security guard at Homeboy for about three and a half years and a part of the organization for nearly eight. He’s easy to like. His gray-tinged hair is slicked back with Murray’s pomade. At 38 years old, he uses the kind of slick talk that would charm a grandma. He says that he keeps to himself, prefers not to open up to others – an impression quite different from the one that I have of him, which is that he’s got a touch of a car salesman about him, smooth, unflappable.
But within a minute of taking a seat in the waiting room, beads of sweat started to appear on Luis’s forehead. He mopped his face with the back of his arm then with the bottom of his T-shirt. He got up, paced the room, sat back down, got up, left the room, came back, sat down to run his arm over his brow again, then rose from his seat, again.
I had an idea of what awaited Luis. A few weeks prior, I spent some time with Troy Clarke, a certified physician’s assistant and one of about 30 tattoo removal volunteers at Homeboy. Clarke flies in once a month from New York to volunteer.
“It’s like having an elastic band whack you in the same spot about 20 times a second,” Clarke explained to me about the process of laser tattoo removal. “The girls deal with pain better than the boys. They’ve got higher pain thresholds, for obvious reasons.”
Homeboy clients are told to have any gang-affiliation tattoos removed, as well as any that might prevent them from getting a job in the future, including tattoos from the neck up or the wrist down, and any concerning a family member or loved one. There are more than 1,200 different gang tattoos in LA, Clarke explained. It can take more than a year to remove if the tattoo is a large cover-up, or if it’s in color. Most importantly, he said, the process is symbolic.
“It’s like a rebirthing. People can’t keep them if they want to move forward with their lives,” Clarke said, before listing some methods of DIY tattoo removal: "Sandpaper, acid. Sometimes they’ll burn it off, or simply just cut it off. I’ve seen it all. And who are we to judge?"
But others talk about the sense of betrayal that goes with having a gang tattoo removed. Jorja Leap is a professor of social welfare at UCLA. For the past five years, she has shadowed the progress of 300 Homeboy clients throughout their time in the program and afterwards. She explained how gang members have to construct a new identity, “literally from the air.” But that change can often come with a sense of disloyalty.
“The biggest thing is betrayal, and that’s kind of the word not spoken. It’s a tough concept to put your arms around. Some of these young men and women feel as though they’re betraying their old way of life by coming in. And I think that that often undergirds the friction: ‘Well, don’t disrespect my homies, don’t disrespect where I came from.’ And internally, there’s a sense of betrayal when they wipe out a tattoo: ‘Am I giving up that old life?’ I’ve had people say to me, ‘In my heart, I’ll always be part of my old neighborhood.’ It’s understandable. You struggle to go beyond it – these young men and young women, it’s their history. They want to let go of it, but they also feel as though they’re betraying it if they do, selling out the old person.”
One patient who has stuck with me from that day with Clarke is a young guy, no older than 26, who was there to have a melted death head removed from the bottom of his throat. He had fallen in with a gang of neo-Nazis, had gotten into drugs. His mother, a tearful, God-fearing American with a helmet of white hair, was with him for support. She told the room that he had upset the rest of his family (an upstanding bunch, she said) with the decisions that he had made, but that he was making amends for it now – now that he was three months sober and living at home again. He wanted to work in fashion merchandizing, was going to college for it. He was polite, had an almost meek demeanor, and he sat motionless throughout the treatment.
Valli Cohen, a nurse practitioner and a volunteer at Homeboy Industries, performs tattoo-removal.
Luis grew up in Boyle Heights, one of three kids who were raised by their single mother. “It was drug-infested. It was territorial, and it became more territorial in '84, '85, when crack cocaine came out. With that came the power, and the killings. And growing up and seeing my family members addicted to crack cocaine and the lifestyle they ran, I just accepted that that was what life was. We had the highest murder rate in all of LA. Then you had the police brutality and all of that.
“At the age of seven, my mom burned both my hands on a gas stove because I was playing with matches. She couldn’t be the father, but she had to give structure and discipline, and she could only do so much as a woman, always working, then coming home, then putting up with three kids who had so much energy.”
Luis's brother gave him crack cocaine to sell on the street when he turned 14. “He told me, ‘You don’t use this; you don’t mess with this. You just make money with it.’”
In an attempt to escape the drugs and crime of Boyle Heights and LA, Luis’s mother moved the family to Sacramento. “But there’s drugs in every city, so I was right back on it.”
At 17, he tried methamphetamines for the first time. Soon after, his mother threw him out. “I started living in abandoned houses. But growing up, I’d always wanted to be part of a gang. They were always respected, like gods.” He returned to LA, back to his old neighborhood, where he joined the East LA 13. “I remember getting a gun and wanting to go and kill, get acknowledged that I was part of this gang.”
After nearly losing his life in a gang fight – “one of the guys pulled a knife on me; they were centimeters from puncturing my lung” – he turned from gang life to drugs. He moved to El Paso, Texas, where he was "doing cocaine, running the streets, stealing gold chains from girls, doing whatever I could to get money.” Then he moved to Tuscon, Arizona, stole a car, got caught, and did three years in prison. When he came out, he met his wife, then fell in with another gang.
“The addiction was still with me. I was a full-blown addict. I couldn’t function. I couldn’t hold down a job. I ended up losing my wife – she left me. I was living suicidal in the sense that I would put myself in different situations, and I wished the motherfucker would pull the trigger.”
Luis, having his tattoo removed
Luis is now married to a woman named Alisha, who is also employed at Homeboy, where they met. They live with her daughter. He rarely sees his own kids, who are now 17, 18, and 19 and live in Tucson. “I’m bitter – I want to be part of their life. Every day is a struggle like that, you know.”
Echoing Leap's theory on loyalty, Luis said that he understands why people feel disloyal by removing tattoos tied to their past. “They don’t want to let go – they just want to stay in the same environment.” But in his case, he said that there was little from before that he needed or wanted to be reminded of.
“No one’s forced to come here,” he said of Homeboy. “People have to want to come here for it to work. I sometimes go back to my old neighborhood, and they still say the same old shit, drink, do drugs – still complain about the same old things. I see those guys I was in a gang with, and I’d much rather be in a shelter than go back to that.”
Back in the waiting room, the nurse beckoned Luis into the tattoo-removal room, lit by a tall window of sunlight. He removed his T-shirt to reveal a kind of Jungle Book–esque safariscape of tigers and lions and long grass across his back. He turned around to illustrate what he wanted removed: “ELA13” written across his stomach, a remnant of his former gang. One of his friends drew the tattoo in his home when Luis was 15, but it looks clean, professionally done.
Luis, silent, white from the neck up, gripped the beam above the doctor.
“Just going to give it a test shot,” said the doctor, holding the laser to Luis’s stomach. “One, two, and…” he let rip with the laser, sounding like a long rat-a-tat blast of firecrackers exploding.
It took less than two minutes for the doctor to pass the laser over the tattoo. One of the nurses watching from the side murmured in awe, as though watching an endangered species give birth: “He does not move. He does not complain." Then it was over, and the old Luis returned immediately.
“Is that hairspray?” he quipped when one of the nurses sprayed sunscreen over the tattoo. As we headed outside, the building had emptied out. The day was almost over for everyone but Luis, who stayed to lock up at around nine that evening.
He held his tTshirt up to show me the results of the treatment. The writing was barely faded, but all around the letters the skin was raw, the color of pink nail polish.
“It’s gonna take a long time to get rid if this one – probably about a year, I would think. I’ll go back in about two weeks.”
“What you gonna get in its place?” asked a friend of Luis's who works at Homeboy, as he leaned in to take a closer look at the tattoo.
“Frijoles,” Luis replied.