Getting an easily visible part of your body tattooed, such as your neck, hands, or face, is a decision that has the potential to alter the course of your life, because for better or worse, it invites judgment from the rest of the world. And that societal judgment is a lot harsher when the tattoos have a criminal connotation, even if that’s in your past.
In the Skin Deep Project, photographer Steven Burton stages photoshoots with former gang members, all of whom have extensive body and face tattoos. He then edits the images, digitally removing their ink, so that they can all see what they would look like. The aim of the series is to “look beyond the tattoos.”
“Damn, this guy is handsome,” says Phillip, who is under house arrest at the time of his interview, and determined to make a change in his life. “I wish I could go back to this one here.”
Others struggle to reconcile the person in the pictures with who they are in real life, saying “I look like a completely different person,” and “is that really me?” Marcos, on the other hand, is struck by how, without his tattoos, he bears much more of a resemblance to his son.
In each interview (of which the above video is a supercut), the individual’s reaction is an emotional one, as the doctored photos prompt them to reflect on their experiences.
“It makes me feel bad, like damn, what the fuck did I do,” says Dennis in an extended interview with Burton. “[People] will probably ask themselves, I wonder what could he have done, where could he be now if he looked like this? That’s what I’m asking myself. I could have been working any place, no record, no tattoos, I could have done whatever, the sky’s the limit. And now there’s a limit. I’m trying to break through that.”
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