Skip to content

Can “Tattoos on the Heart” Erase Injustice in the ‘Hood?

January 13, 2011

Fr. Gregory Boyle SJ, Jesuit priest and executive director of Homeboy Industries, delivered the Jan. 12 January Series presentation, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.

With the wit of a wizened comedian and an obvious heart for his work, Boyle shared a series of anecdotes that illustrated his ministry to people involved in gang life in Los Angeles, California.

The first observation made upon entering the Ladie’s Literary Club, one of the remote locations broadcasting the talk live, was that all but one person attending was White. Perhaps attendance at the main auditorium and other locations was more representative of other ethnicities. This left the writer to wonder if this ministry, like many other outreach programs to African American youth, was more focused on helping individuals find a way to “be productive citizens” of our White dominated society rather than addressing the systemic causes of gang activity.

Homeboy Industries is the largest such outreach to people involved in gangs in North America, serving more than 1,000 people each month. According to its Web site, it provides wrap-around support services that include “case management, education, job training, employment counseling, legal services, mental health counseling, twelve step meetings, and tattoo removal … Many gang members have visible tattoos that inhibit their ability to secure employment, thus we offer free tattoo removal.”

Because of the difficulty in placing people who have been involved with gangs or have felony records, Homeboy Industries employs hundreds of clients in its screen print, merchandise sales, bakery and restaurant, the Homegirl Café.

“We stand at the margins with the powerless, the voiceless, those who have burdens more than they can bear, those to whom dignity is denied, the easily despised and readily left out, the demonized so that the demonizing will stop,” Boyle said. “No kinship, no justice. No kinship, no peace. If kinship were our (world’s) goal, we would no longer be promoting justice, we would be celebrating it.”

While Boyle’s whole heart is obviously in his work and his presentation left no doubt that he has real love and concern for those he works to help, his use of gang dialect and specific anecdotes to elicit laughter from the predominantly white audience seemed to perpetuate a paternalistic “us-versus-them” mentality.

Why do young people join gangs in the first place? According to Boyle, it is because of a “lethal lack of hope.” He did not go further during this talk to cite where that lack of hope originates. Neither does the Web site mention systemic issues such as racism, white privilege, classism, lack of employment offering a living wage, lack of access to nutritious foods, environmental racism or lack of access to quality education. In addition, there is the whole issue of a prison industrial complex that makes huge profits on the backs of our minority populations.

GRIID made a call to Detroit community organizer, Yusef Shakur, to discuss these omissions. A former gang member, Shakur returned to his Detroit neighborhood after serving a prison sentence. He has since worked not only as a community organizer but also as a Head Start teacher, youth mentor and business owner.

“I always heard people condemn me for being a gang banger but no one asked me ‘Why?’ For the most part, gang culture is the by-product of social decay, the social let-down of human beings. It’s a reflection of family breakdown. All those aspects we find within our communities, we find within ourselves,” Shakur said. “We are imitating the society we live in. Most young men growing up in a hostile urban environment take on the characteristics of their environment. (An environment with) a lack of consistent resources: social, economical, political and cultural. The fundamental answer is creating a strong foundation. After years and years of indoctrination, you become immune to being shot.  You see your homeboys get shot . . .  Trauma occurs psychologically. It spiritually damages to the point they grow up in a hopeless environment and that hopelessness takes root in their souls.”

(Shakur recounts his journey from gang member to community organizer in his autobiography, The Window to My Soul.)

Greg Boyle no doubt is doing great work in Los Angeles. In his talk, he mentioned that Los Angeles is home to 86,000 gang members. Turning around 1,000 lives a month could be called a miracle. However, we need more than a miracle. We need to build movements that confront the systems engendering classism, racism and all the other “isms” creating this “lethal lack of hope” within our nation’s urban centers.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 14, 2011 11:45 pm

    Tattooing is about the hottest thing going right now. It’s amazing to me, being an “old school” guy, that the past stigma of tattooing is being forgotten. Certainly the under forty crowd is totally tolerant of tattooing. Tattooing is simply becoming cool, even people from higher levels of social status are getting tatted. I’m thinking within 20 years we’ll see our first tattooed President.

  2. stelle permalink
    January 15, 2011 12:44 am

    I was initially puzzled by Homeboy Industries emphasis on tattoo removal, as well. However, it seems these folks undergo the painful process of having their tattoos removed for two reasons. 1. In order to get a job. (Perhaps their tattoos aren’t among the designs accepted by the predominantly white business culture, even those businesses considered “edgy ” and especially if the tatts are on the face and neck.) 2. They are also removing tattoos that broadcast their past involvement with a specific gang.

    You can see Homeboy Industries removing tattoos in this Youtube video, about 1:30 sec. in.

    It does seem to make a good case. However, I’d definitely like to hear what other people think about this.

    As far as a president with tattoos being elected within the next 20 years, as long as she is neither Democrat or Republican, it’s fine by me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: