Before you judge them, hear their stories.

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When Francisco saw an image of himself without tattoos, he couldn’t help but smile.

“Damn,” he said. “I haven’t seen myself like that in years.”

Francisco is a former gang member. His arms, face, and hands are covered in tattoos and gang symbols, permanent reminders of his former life.

But thanks to the photography and photo editing skills of Steven Burton, Francisco had the opportunity to see himself a changed man, the way he felt on the inside.

Francisco Flores. Photo and edited image by Steven Burton, used with permission.

Francisco is just one of the men and women who took part in “Skin Deep,” an innovative project from photographer Steven Burton.

Burton captured portraits of 28 former gang members and incarcerated men and women, and he spent more than 400 hours in Photoshop digitally removing their tattoos.

Phillip Mendoza. Photo and edited image by Steven Burton, used with permission.

Burton was inspired by the work of Rev. Gregory J. Boyle, who many know as G-Dog.

Boyle, an ordained Catholic priest, is the founder and director of Homeboy Industries, a Los Angeles-based gang intervention, rehabilitation, and re-entry program. In addition to classes, employment counseling, substance abuse support, legal services, and mental health care, Homeboy Industries pays for laser tattoo removal treatment for 950 clients each month.

These tattoos are not only visible reminders of gang and prison life, but they can make it difficult for these men and women to find employment. To many, the tattoos (and the people underneath) are intimidating and scary. Legal or not, some companies and schools just aren’t willing to take the risk.

David Williams. Photo and edited image by Steven Burton, used with permission.

But tattoo removal is a long and sometimes painful process. So Burton decided to create a digital solution.

After watching “G-Dog,” a 2012 documentary on Boyle, Burton was inspired to use his photography and editing skills to show before and “after” photos to see how the men and women would react, but also to understand the impact tattoos have on people escaping gang life.

August Lopez. Photo and edited image by Steven Burton, used with permission.

Burton went straight to the source and talked to men and women using the services at Homeboy Industries. Many were hesitant to take part in his project, as photographers hoping to shoot heavily tattooed former gang members are a dime a dozen. Burton had to build trust and prove he was there for the right reasons — not just as a photographer, but as someone willing to listen.

Samuel Gonzalez. Photo and edited image by Steven Burton, used with permission.

“I didn’t go in with any preconceived ideas of what I was after,” Burton said.” I just wanted it to be honest and open, where they get to talk about their lives.”

After he worked on the first four images and showed the participants, word quickly spread. For men and women hoping to turn their lives around, Burton offered a priceless gift: a glimpse (even just on paper) of life without the gang.

Erin Echavarria. Photo and edited image by Steven Burton, used with permission.

Burton didn’t just photograph the homeboys and homegirls. He listened to their stories, too.

Each interview revealed personal and shocking details about life before and after the gang. Many suffered abuse or addiction prior to and during their years in the gang. They’ve witnessed unthinkable violence and are doing their best to start over, for themselves and their families.

“The cards they were dealt in the beginning really set the course for their life in the gang. It’s never really been so much of a choice for a lot of these people,” Burton said. “But what’s beautiful about the people I talk to is that they’ve made the choice to leave the gang, and it’s a difficult one.”

Marcos Luna. Photo and edited image by Steven Burton, used with permission.

While deciding to leave is admirable, the transition isn’t easy. Since “Skin Deep” began, two of Burton’s subjects have been killed by police. Burton believes many are profiled for their tattoos. Before you judge them, hear their stories.

“People can change their life,” he said. “But because of the tattoos, who would know?”

That’s why these images and stories are so important: Burton hopes to change the narrative around people in gangs and their tattoos.

Burton compiled his photos as well as interviews and stories from the men and women to create “Skin Deep: Looking Beyond the Tattoos,” a book he hopes to publish in 2017.  

He’s crowdsourcing funds on Kickstarter to get the book published. If he’s able to make a profit, he hopes to give it back to the organization that made it possible — Homeboy Industries — and help others see themselves in a new light through digital means and real tattoo removal treatments.

“I was talking to Father Greg … I would definitely love for [the money] to go back into carrying on the story,” Burton said.

Mario Lundes. Photo and edited image by Steven Burton, used with permission.

If you’d like to support these men and women as they chart a new course, start with kindness.

These men and women don’t need your pity. They need a fair shot, with or without tattoos.

Support schools, businesses, and nonprofits working to give them a chance. And before you judge them, give them a chance yourself.  

Vinson Ramos. Photo and edited image by Steven Burton, used with permission.

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For a behind-the-scenes look at the making of “Skin Deep: Looking Beyond the Tattoos,” including interviews and photographs, check out Steven’s Instagram and Facebook page.

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