Now in his early 30s, “Mateo” remembers how the beginning of high school equaled his start in gang involvement.
Mateo is a pseudonym — the Walla Walla man and father of one asked that his name not be used. While he “honorably” exited the gang life through career choice, he said, there are younger gang members now in their 20s who are likely unaware he’s served his time doing the lower-level “gangbanging.”
“They don’t know me. They don’t know where I was in the gang.”
So the process of getting rid of his gang tattoos through Walla Walla’s INK OUT removal project might be threatening to the younger generation of gang members, he said.
“They’d see this as disrespect.”
As a freshman at Walla Walla High School, Mateo was hungry for acceptance, he recalled while sitting in a downtown restaurant recently.
“I was drawn to the gang lifestyle and everything that goes with it,” he said. “Being in a gang means being accepted into a subculture. If you don’t play sports or a musical instrument, you are looking for the fit of a family-like structure.”
Being in a gang also brought him power, Mateo said.
“I had what every kid wants; people were afraid of me.”
Two years later it brought him his first tattoo, as well: “You want to prove you’re tough. You want to show allegiance to the gang.”
His friends were getting them, too, on their faces and their heads, he said, running his hand across his temple, his fingers halting at the hair line.
“I was artistic, so people wanted me to design their tattoos. I feel bad — I tattooed kids with pretty big tattoos ... that are forever a reminder of the gang.”
Boys and girls alike, Mateo added.
And now he wants to undo his own art and all that it once represented for him. The marks on his skin are constants, signs of a minus in his life.
“It lowers my self-esteem. It doesn’t look professional on the days I wear a suit and tie,” said Mateo, who now works for a local social service agency.
He finds himself folding his hands behind his back to hide letters and numbers on them.
“Or I do this,” Mateo said, demonstrating one hand casually draped over the other atop the restaurant table.
Even when others can’t see them, the tattoos might as well be a billboard advertising the flawed reasoning of youth, he added.
Those marks are starting to fade now as Mateo works through the series of INK OUT treatments as a test subject for the program.
“Just another little step that’s going to close a chapter,” he said.
But it worries Mateo to see the tattoo culture in general growing, he said.
“I don’t think people realize how it’s going to affect them in the future. I certainly didn’t,” he said. “At 16, there are no consequences.”
Sheila Hagar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8322.