Black ink, ‘black heart’

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WALLA WALLA — “Victoria” and “Joe” left the Walla Walla Valley years ago to get away from gang life, but they took souvenirs with them — tattoos next to their eyes, on their hands and elsewhere.

The husband and wife, now in their 30s, were immersed in gang life here beginning as young teens. That included getting tattoos and plenty of them, said the couple, who still live in the Northwest and asked that their real names not be used to ensure the safety of family members still living in Walla Walla.

Now they travel about once a month to participate as initial testers in Walla Walla’s INK OUT program. The new program uses a special laser to break up tattoo ink and allow the smaller particles of ink to be absorbed into the body.

Joe is anxious to lose all signs of his past mistakes. The gang life consumed him by the time he was 12 years old and he got his first tattoo when his family was living at Christian Aid Center, he said.

“This guy we knew from the neighborhood was hanging out, and he just asked if I wanted a tattoo and I said ‘sure.’ He tattooed my initial on my left hand,” Joe said.

Although his parents expressed their unhappiness over that first mark, Joe went on to embrace the brotherhood of the gang. By age 13, he had been locked up for the first time for assaulting a rival gang member and was in drug rehab for a month.

“I was evil,” Joe said. “My heart was black. I was the most hardhearted person you could know.”

His tattoos grew larger as involvement deepened, he added, including a 9-inch-by-5-inch one on his hand.

Victoria was close behind, she said. Her father died when she was little and her mother had no hope of controlling the willful teen, who was seeking the love she felt was missing at home.

“I was heavy in the gang,” she recalled. “I ran with the guys, they treated me as one of their ‘homies.’ They had trust in me and they had my back for every little thing.”

Her first tattoo was put on her wrist when she was 15 years old, then came ear and facial markings.

“It represented my gang. I was showing them I represented my set,” she said. “Everybody I hung out with. Or my enemies. I was tough back in the day.”

She’s a petite woman, and people who know her in her new life would be shocked, Victoria said with a laugh. “They would never think I was that kind of girl.”

By the time the two married nearly nine years ago, they had done their “gang banging” share of drug running, fighting — and the tattoos on both told the rest of the world a silent story.

“They ... separate you from people,” Joe said. “It marks you as, ‘Don’t trust him. Don’t hire him. Don’t have him around your family.’ They totally define who you are.”

With marriage came children, and Joe and Victoria began rethinking their universe. Seeing people they ran with go away to prison — or die — held no appeal when they considered raising a family.

“I turned my life around for my kids. I didn’t want that influence on my kids,” Joe said.

Leaving Walla Walla was the cleanest break the two could hope for. Once in their new city, Joe went into the automobile industry while Victoria entered the consulting field.

In the office setting, Victoria found her tattoos a bigger problem than ever before. She’d wished them gone for a decade, but now she had to actively remember to wear her hair a certain way and use makeup as a cover.

“Sometimes I forget and I can see them judge me for who I was. Even my boss,” she said. “Honestly, I don’t think I would have gotten my job if I hadn’t covered the tattoos. And be where I am now.”

When her sister-in-law told them INK OUT was seeking testers for the new program, the couple jumped at the opportunity, Victoria said, even if it meant hours of driving to come back home for treatments.

Their tattoos are beginning to disappear, and that’s helpful for another piece of recovery from gang life, Joe noted. He and his family are now heavily involved in a different social grouping that also identifies as a family.

“I found my help in God, that was what helped me through my addictions,” he said. “We started going to church.”

Joe now runs the sound system for his church and spends his days off to help in its ministries. He also volunteers at a television station in his city to directing filming of a religious program, he said.

“I also counsel people who come from the same background as I do,” he said.

Mot surprisingly, he and Victoria counsel young people to stay away from tattoos.

“I believe your body is a temple of God, so any tattoos, even ‘I love Mom,’ defines who you are,” Joe said. “My advice is skip the tattoos. It affects your lifestyle; it affects the type of people you can have relationships with.”

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

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