Photos by Jason Ruiz.
As he laid in a flower bed with a police helicopter still circling overhead, Matthew was convinced that he had evaded the law. He’d led police officers on a high-speed pursuit in a stolen Toyota Camry that he eventually ditched. As he stared up at the sky, the certainty of freedom was tangible, until a neighbor spotted him. The only sure thing now was that he was headed back to prison.
He recounts the romp through the city that landed him in county jail with his hands clasped in front of him as he peers over the thick-rimmed glasses fitted snugly on the bridge of his nose. It wasn’t the first time he’d been to jail, and it wouldn't be the last. The 30 year-old man [who chose not to give his last name in exchange for sharing his story] estimates that he’s spent the majority of his life either under the influence, or incarcerated. The two intersected again as he was discovered in the flower bed, and it was off to county for four months.
“I’ve been a drug addict since I was a young teenager,” Matthew said. “I’ve been in and out of prison, rehabs. Being on drugs, I thought it was the best idea, even though it was a horrible idea.”
The drug abuse started when Matthew was 16 years old, shortly after the death of his best friend. The once-promising baseball player—who his mother, Melissa, describes as a natural athlete—started on a downward spiral of substance abuse, jail time and tattoos.
What triggered it, she can’t put her finger on. But it was the start of a lifelong struggle that she has tried to be supportive through. “I missed whatever happened,” Melissa said. “He just wasn’t happy and he was in trouble.”
He estimates that he now has close to 100 tattoos, most of them forming one large collage covering most of his body. There’s a broken heart, a dragon and a piece paying tribute to the city of Cerritos. The back of his neck reads “Try Me” and the most recent addition to his collection—the words “Jesus Christ”—is written across his eyelids.
The words, which he attributes to a depression-driven drug and alcohol binge, are barely visible behind the frames of his glasses. When he blinks his eyes the words look like smeared mascara. But when he sobered up the next morning he knew that he had made a mistake.
“It wasn’t like a hangover experience like ‘what did I do,’ it was more of I’m just going to have to live with this now, you know?” Matthew said.”
He is currently in a court-mandated drug program and lives at a shelter in Long Beach. He's employed as an iron worker, but he knows that his tattoos limit him. They have curtailed his career possibilities nearly as much as they have shaken his relationships with his family.
He admits that at first glance he might look like a gang member. Between the sheer amount of time he’s spent behind bars and the jailhouse tattoo aesthetic displayed on his skin, it’s not uncommon for him to catch stares when his shirt comes off. Although he was forced to “run with the Southerners”—a group of loosely-connected gangs that pay homage to the Mexican Mafia—while in prison, he maintains that he’s a "one man gang" and has no actual affiliations.
“His tattoos have no rhyme or reason,” Melissa said. “It’s just a roadmap to a mess. But still, that initial look of, you know, the tattoos have got him in trouble.”
Spending time in jail was beneficial in the sense that it provided him with the knowledge that on the outside, there was an organization catering to those cast-offs deemed too high risk, a lost cause and ultimately unemployable. Homeboy Industries is considered one of the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation and re-entry programs in the country and according to Matthew, their tattoo removal program has a bit of a cult-like status among inmates trying to start over.
“That’s what they’re known for,” Matthew said. “That’s their signature thing. They help people find jobs and help with tattoo removal.”
The nonprofit, which was the brainchild of Father Gregory Boyle, has been providing free services to gang members for over 25 years. Using funds from federal and private sources as well as a revenue stream from their Homeboy Bakery and Homegirl Cafe, the organization offers assistance with case management, legal and mental health services as well as job skills training and of course, the sought-after free laser tattoo removal clinic.
According to a specialist from the Pew Center on the States, the average cost of a day in prison is roughly $80, while the average cost of a day on probation is about $3.40. The cost to keep someone locked away far outpaces the cost to rehabilitate and get them back out into society as a productive citizen. That line of thinking is one of the cornerstones that the Homeboy Industries organization is built on.
The company’s website estimates that it performs an average of 745 tattoo removal treatments every month, but interviews with doctors at the facility place the number much higher. While many of the people who walk through the doors come from gang backgrounds, gang affiliation is not a requirement to be treated. Job stoppers are job stoppers, and the company is willing to help anyone overcome the ink-laden obstacles that prevent them from gaining employment. The fact that they do this for free—given that private practices can charge well over $100 per square inch for every treatment—sounds too good to be true to many who yearn to erase parts of their past, including Matthew.
“There are a lot of good people that have made bad decisions and are turning their lives around,” Matthew said. “That’s why it’s actually a godsend that this company is here to help people that most of society has turned their back on.”
Matthew has agreed to have the tattoos on his eye lids and neck removed both to improve his chances of advancing in the work place, but to also to improve his relationship with his family, who have been weathering the storm of his addictions and arrests over the better part of the past two decades. As part of his agreement to transfer his probation to Washington State, he’s undergoing the laser treatments at Homeboy in order to start fresh in the Pacific Northwest.
“If I ever wanted to be a foreman or a lead position it’s something that would probably keep me from representing a company,” Matthew said. “If they have a choice between a guy that looks normal, with no tattoos on their face or a guy like me, common sense says they’re going to promote the guy with no tattoos.”
He describes the waiting room at Homeboy as a good representation of what it looks like in prison, most likely because many of their clients have done time. But, like Matthew, they’re at Homeboy because this is a stepping stone toward starting a new chapter in their lives.
He enters the procedure room for his first session not knowing what to expect. He holds his eyelids down and the green flash of laser light starts the arduous process of slowly burning off the ink, disintegrating it from the inside out—a process that Matthew said is substantially more painful than having the tattoos applied. His vision is slightly blurry immediately after the removal treatment and it will take several more sessions to completely erase the tattoos from his skin. But as he departs from his past, one free laser removal session at a time, he’s moving closer to a future; one that’s optimistic and filled with potential. That is something that both he and his family cannot put a price on.
“I can’t say enough good things about them,” Melissa said. “One thing that just had me amazed is that I asked if I could donate money or whatever, and you can, but they don’t ask for anything. They just do what they do. How do you give back to somebody that’s doing what they do? They’re doing so much.”
Homeboy Industries is currently in the middle of a crowd-funding campaign to bring their aging equipment and operations into the 21st century. The program need new lasers, cooling machines, an electronic medical record, numbing creams and much more to continue to provide the level of care they've come to be known for. To donate, click here.