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Former Asian American Gang Members Erase Their Past in Prison

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Former Asian American Gang Members Erase Their Past in Prison

Picture of Nalea J. Ko
Former Asian American Gang Members Erase Tattoos, Their Past
Former gang members like Julio Lee can start new lives free of gang tattoos with the help of Clean Arm For Community.
Pacific Citizen newspaper
Friday, April 16, 2010

Each tattoo on Julio Lee's body tells a different story. At 16, he got inked for the first time on his back with his nickname "Chino" in old English print. The name represents his mixed Mexican and Chinese heritage. But for Lee, now 20, it was also his gang moniker.

Other tattoos are reminders of a life of drugs and violence. A faded mark on his left shoulder reminds Lee of an ex-girlfriend. On his finger is a washed out tattoo that pays homage to his former gang, the Rebellious Soldiers.

Each tattoo, he said, reminds him of a past he would rather not relive.

"I was involved in a lot of violence," Lee explained. "Drive-by shootings, fighting, robberies, you name it. I've seen people get killed right in front of me."

With the help of Clean Arms For Community Lee applied for a free tattoo removal service.

Since 2009 the nonprofit has administered about 64 laser removals within the prison system in Southern California. They work in an empty cell.

After about eight treatments Lee's tattoos are fading, so too is his former image.

"Well, it's a big burden off my back. I just feel at peace now because I don't have to look back at them," Lee said. "I don't have to look at my body, and just still see part of my past, you know."

Writing a New Story

Lee's story was one of a boy who was homeless at 5 with his mother, sleeping on park benches. Vowing to never be without money in his pocket, Lee joined a gang at about 14. He spent nearly every day drinking, smoking marijuana and crystal methamphetamine.

At 17, Lee landed in the Southern Youth Center Reception Center and Clinic (SYCRCC) on a two-and-a-half year prison term for robbery. His stay there would help him erase past memories of a gang life.

Finding his Christian faith, Lee decided — despite jeers from fellow inmates —that he would leave the gang life for good.

"I think it was a reason why I had to get incarcerated … it all comes down to when I do tell my story behind why I got my tattoos removed I can advise those who are seeking to find a new path on which direction to go," Lee said.

Officials with Clean Arms say Lee also encouraged others to leave the gang life and remove their tattoos.

"Julio was really a source of leadership, he was a source of hope, he was a source of positivity for the other kids," said Taizo Shibayama, director of Clean Arms. "He's showing us that he's putting in his work to turn his life around. And we're doing everything we can to help him out."

As of March 2009 about 230 youth were in SYCRCC, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. About 1,640 were in facilitates across California.

As of December 2008, nine percent of those imprisoned are APA.

Laser removal service is free to ex-gang members and troubled young men who want to remove visible tattoos that could prevent them from starting a new life.

To be eligible for the program ex-gang members and others must write an essay about why they want to remove their tattoos. They must also agree to participate in gang prevention and rehabilitation classes. In return for their clean arms, participants must also do community service.

For every hour of community service they get $20 worth of laser treatment. Lee's tattoo removal treatments on his arm, Shibayama said, would have cost about $350 per treatment.

Shibayama said he thinks the tattoo removal services help participants show others that they have the motivation to improve their lives.

"I just recently became a client of Clean Arms For Community where they are helping me not just to get rid of my old bad life tattoos but also to not think of who I was once," said Art Santana, who was in a gang in Anaheim, Calif. "As the tattoos are getting faded by the laser so [too are] the thoughts of my past life."

With an annual budget of $60,000, Clean Arms is looking to build partnerships and expand its services. Eventually, Shibayama said organization officials want to also offer job placement, therapy and other services. They also want to start offering tattoo removal services for young women in Los Angeles and Orange County, Calif.

Dreams for the Future

For now the organization is helping young men like Lee have a chance at a future.

"Now that I'm out [of the gang], I don't want to relive that life again and I don't want to end up going back because I know actually where it's going to end me up," Lee said. "It's going to end up with me in three places: back in jail for a worse crime, handicap or six feet below the ground."

Lee is now working two jobs, one as a short-order cook and the other as a delivery driver at a 99 Cents Only store. He is now living in a halfway house away from his old neighborhood and bad influences. Lifting his shirtsleeve to reveal a now-faded tattoo on his upper arm, Lee talks about dreams to be a racecar mechanic or driver.

"Julio loves the racing industry, so I was like, ‘Hey I got to take you to the Long Beach Grand Prix,'" said Shibayama with a smile.

Officials with the Formula Drift Holdings donated 15 tickets to Clean Arms for troubled youth.

"We feel that often young people lose their way and it is the responsibility for all of us to help them find a way back," explained Jim Liaw, Formula Drift Holdings president and CEO. "These tickets are not just to promote what we do or just about providing entertainment but maybe it can inspire."

Clean Arms was a big opportunity, Lee said. It not only helped him remove a part of his past, he said, but it is helping him move forward.

"Every time I told my story about how I got my tattoos and what I used to do behind it, I wasn't embarrassed but I was ashamed," he said. "I was ashamed of it because I couldn't believe that I used to do those types of things. I look at it now and I'd be like, ‘What was I doing?'"

Lee's mom is taking notice of his change as well.

"Wow, she's like shocked and surprised. She's proud. I know she's proud."