Tattoos are an integral part of American gang culture, and for those wishing to make fresh starts these permanent marks are hard to escape. By capturing ex-gang members and photoshopping out their tats, photographer Steven Burton's latest project, 'Skin Deep', helps us see past the ink.

There’s more beauty in tattoos than just their aesthetic: These imprints on our bodies often sing to a time in our lives, a moment or emotion. For some though, tattoos can also become a permanent and very public reminder of a history that they’d prefer to move on from.

For nobody is this truer than ex-gang members, getting inked for these guys with displays of allegiances, skills, places of incarceration and more is the norm. But when someone wants to put that life behind them, the world still sees the marks.

3 Francisco Flores Portrait TATs4 Francisco Floe=res NO TAT-3

Realising just how debilitating this can be, American photographer Steven Burton decided to start his latest project, Skin Deep. “I wanted to comment on the way society is quick to judge these ex-gang members without taking the time to learn anything about them and understand who they are”, says Steven.

21 Samuel Gonzalez  TATS 22 Samuel Gonzalez NO TATS

Steven set out shoot portraits of inked up subjects, and then using Photoshop he removed any trace of their tattoos. Working closely with Homeboy Industries, an LA based charity that supports ex-gang members, Steven began to earn the trust of the guys he wanted to capture. But it wasn’t easy.

5 Dennis Zamdran TATS6 Dennis Zamdran

“I started by pulling some images off the internet to see if the concept would work”, explains Steven. “I used these images to pitch the idea to the homeboys, although the first four homeboys did not really understand why I wanted to photograph them.”

After a little convincing, they agreed to the shoot. “After I worked on the images and showed them the pics, the word got out and it was a lot easier to convince others to get involved.”

As the project got underway, Steven was stunned by the reactions he received from the former gang members. “The faces of the homeboys as they looked at the images, was amazing”, he explains. The 400 hours spent tirelessly editing felt worth it.

7 David Piina Tattoos portrait8 David Pina No tattoos portrait

The images are set to become part of a book, it’s the next step for Steven, and he’s currently crowdfunding for it. “The plan was to let the participants tell their own stories”, he continues.

“The book, in addition to the photos, will include transcribed interviews. In truth, I just wanted to understand why they were in the gangs, why the tattoos. I wondered what they saw everyday when they looked in the mirror; how they would change the past if they could; how society judges them, and in the end, how they judge themselves.”

9 David Williams Tats10 David Williams NO TATS

Sadly two of Steven’s subjects have passed away since he started, both fatally shot since he photographed them. Vincent was killed by three policemen while having an argument with his girlfriend, in front of his child. Calvin was also shot by the police. “In a way, living with tattoos is living with a bull’s eye on your back”, suggests Steven.

11 Vinson Ramos TATS12 Vinson Ramos NO TATS15 Erin Echavarria TATS16 Erin Echavarria NO TATS

Check out Steven’s Kickstarter campaign for Skin Deep.

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