Erasing shame, stigma Removal of tattoos helping facilitate change for ex-gang members

A yellow garage door, dented, in a back lane. Black spray paint. A tag thrown up by a gang member, or a misguided kid who wants to be one. A warning to rivals.

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A yellow garage door, dented, in a back lane. Black spray paint. A tag thrown up by a gang member, or a misguided kid who wants to be one. A warning to rivals.

More tags down the lane: territory claimed, crews repped, a memorial — RIP — for a fallen friend.

Gang graffiti is easy to spot in inner-city Winnipeg: pocking neighbourhoods and homes, scrawled upon fences and storefronts, scratched atop boarded-up windows and walls.

The tags are written in code: numbers and letters with double meanings, confusing to outsiders but clear to those in the know, those in the life.

Many of the people who throw up those tags, or who make up the street gangs that call this city home, are marked, too — with ink instead of paint, the canvas not a wall but their skin.

The tattoos hold deep significance to those who wear them, representing their membership in a particular gang, or revealing details of their personal history: the rank they have risen to, their skills and accomplishments, time spent locked up.

Most aren’t done in tattoo shops, but in basements or prisons, with homemade ink called “soot” that stains the skin. Alongside the bandanas and colours of the gang, the tattoos serve as a form of armour, a mask with which members navigate a hostile world.

The tattoos are meant to be for life, just like membership in the gang. But what happens when someone decides that enough is enough, that they want to leave the life behind?

First come the safety concerns, the worry the gang will attack you for continuing to rep the tattoo while no longer a member. Or worse: take back the tattoo, and the skin upon which it rests, through an act of violence.

But after that, there’s the rest of the world to consider, the mainstream society you want to break into, the way strangers look at the tattoos that mark your body — your hands and knuckles, your arms and legs, your neck and face.

Not just people you pass on the sidewalk or see at the store, but the admissions officer at the school you wish to attend, or the boss sitting across the desk during your job interview.

That’s where Della Steinke, 51, comes in, offering hope in the form of a tattoo-removal machine. Partnered with the Gang Action Interagency Network (GAIN), she offers free tattoo-removal for ex-gang members looking to erase the stains of their past.

Because just like a fresh coat of paint can cover up the gang graffiti seen throughout the streets and alleys of inner-city Winnipeg, so too can marked flesh be made clean again.

Ink etched into skin painfully washed away.

Cursive script wrapped around the ankle, five letters: B-L-O-O-D.

A symbol on his hand, repping the street gang he was a member of, once upon a time, when he was a young man.

Inside the small tattoo shop on Regent Avenue — Studio 431 — Steinke tells the man to lay down on a table. He does what she says, leaning back, with a small pair of tanning goggles covering his eyes.

The machine Steinke holds in her hand looks like something out of a science fiction film, a futuristic ray-gun that zaps and ticks with the steady beat of a metronome. She holds the machine over the man’s skin, burning the flesh: first his hand, then his ankle.

It hurts, the man says as much, but so too does the shame of what those tattoos represent.

This day has been a long time coming, the culmination of a process that began more than a decade ago, when the thought first crossed his mind that maybe he should do something about his old gang tattoos.

It wasn’t until recently, when his wife saw a social media post from GAIN advertising free tattoo removal for ex-gang members, that he realized the day had finally come.

Within a week, the man got a call at work from Ryan Beardy, GAIN’s co-ordinator and an ex-gang member himself, who told him he’d been accepted into the tattoo removal program.

And now, sitting in this shop on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, the work to remove those painful memories from his skin has finally begun.

“A lot of days I don’t remember it, or don’t think about it. But there are times when I go out and I realize it’s there and I’ve got to hide it. There are days in the summer when you want to wear shorts and flip-flops, or go to the beach, but you’ve always got to plan around it,” the man says.

So, you learn to lie about the tattoos.

The first person he lied to was his mother, telling her the tattoo on his ankle stood for a quote — ‘blood is thicker than water’ — and not membership in a street gang. Looking back now, he doesn’t think she was fooled for a second.

He’s lied to people about the symbol on his hand, making up a story about what it means. Other times he’s lied about both tattoos, saying they’re just stupid ink he got when he was young that have no real meaning.

“Over the years a coping mechanism would be: ‘Well, this was a part of my life, a part of my growth, it got me to where I am today.’ But really that was just because of the shame behind it, the stigma behind it,” he says.

Lying isn’t the only strategy he’s developed. He wears long socks most days to cover up the tattoo on his ankle. If it’s not covered, he crosses his legs in a peculiar fashion — one ankle in front of the other — whenever he sits, to make sure no one can see it.

“I’m still going to want to sit the way I used to sit, but knowing that over time I don’t have to do that anymore is going to be a good feeling. It will almost be like a liberation, like that part of my life will really be left in the past,” the man says.

“You can let go of the gang lifestyle. You can leave it and exit it. But a tattoo is permanent — unless you get something done about it. This is an important program, because it’s not easily affordable to cover up or remove a tattoo.”

That’s exactly why Steinke, herself covered in ink, got into tattoo removal roughly seven years ago. She wanted to remove one her tattoos, roughly the size of an apple, but learned it would cost between $2,000 and $3,000.

Steinke bought her first machine and began offering tattoo removal services, alongside other laser services at a spa where she worked. Meanwhile, she had a second job at a federal halfway house, helping people reintegrate into society following stints in prison.

One day, with an act of violence, her two worlds came crashing together.

“I had this kid at the halfway house, he was 23 years old and he had just come out of Stony Mountain. The very next day after his release, he walked out of the house and within two hours he was beaten so badly by the gang, because he still had a tattoo on his neck,” Steinke says.

She offered to take him to the spa after hours and remove the tattoo for free.

Then word spread around the halfway house and among members of the parole board about what she’d done, and soon enough, more and more people were asking if they too could have their gang tattoos removed.

“It just exploded,” Steinke says.

Several years prior, one of Steinke’s children was in a terrible car accident. For a while, it seemed as if he might not survive. That’s when she made a vow: if he pulled through, she would spend the rest of her life paying-it-forward, finding some way to help people in need.

Her son survived, and with tattoo removal, she found her way to keep her word.

Steinke estimates she’s removed gang tattoos from roughly 250 to 300 people — all free of charge. A couple of years ago, she tried to tally it all up, estimating she’d done more than $1 million in free tattoo-removal services for ex-gang members.

Now she’s partnering with GAIN in the hopes of reaching more people. And as long as there is a need in the community, Steinke says she will never stop.

“I even have one of my children trained… that way if anything were ever happen (to me), then he would keep it going,” she says.

To start, Steinke only removed gang tattoos in visible spots — hands and arms, face and neck — as her main concern was for the person’s safety. But over time she realized just how much gang tattoos easily covered by clothing can still affect a person’s self-esteem.

Every time you catch a glimpse of it in the mirror, every time you have to explain it to someone you know, it’s a painful reminder of a past you want so badly to forget.

That’s the case with the man here today, whose session — the first of multiple — only takes about 10 minutes. Despite the pain from the laser, he gets up from the table smiling, asking when he can come back for another session.

He doesn’t want to be named because there are people he works with who don’t know about his past. Even after all these years, more than a decade since he left the gang life, he still worries it might change the way people look at him.

But standing next to his wife in the front entrance of Studio 431, the man says it’s important for him to share his story, so others know change is possible. The fact he’s beginning the tattoo-removal process on this day only makes it sweeter.

“I’ve lived with it for so long, having it removed will be a big relief, to leave that part of my past even further behind. And it’s nice getting this started on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, it gives it a double meaning for me,” he says.

“Because I wouldn’t have been in that situation if not for colonialism, because poverty, crime, homelessness, all of that contributed to why I was in a gang.”

There are different kinds of street gangs in Winnipeg, but the ones tied to Indigenous communities loom largest in the city’s collective imagination.

They are not the only ones, but they are the most well-known.

According to the 2013 book Indians Wear Red — an academic study into Indigenous street gangs in Manitoba — the first outfit was born amid the “toxic environment of complex poverty” that characterized Winnipeg’s North End in the 1980s.

The group was called the Main Street Rattlers, a collection of 20 to 25 men who were supplied marijuana by a biker gang. They took to dealing around the bars and hotels along the Main Street strip, but only lasted a handful of years before going under.

But other street gangs soon took their place.

In 1988, tensions in the city were high following the killing of J.J. Harper, an unarmed Indigenous leader walking the streets of the North End, who was shot to death by Winnipeg police officer Robert Cross.

Within months, the Indian Posse street gang was formed in a West End basement.

The gang was founded by brothers Danny and Richard Wolfe, alongside a crew of kids from rough backgrounds who roamed the streets with little supervision.

In his 2011 book the Ballad of Danny Wolfe, journalist Joe Friesen details the desperate life the brothers were born into: in and out of foster care, and subjected to extreme family dysfunction as a result of the inter-generational effects of Canada’s Indian Residential School System.

“They were out there on the streets most nights from about the age of eight or nine. Richard would steal blankets from clotheslines and the two of them would sleep in an apartment stairwell or in a play structure at a neighbourhood park,” Friesen wrote.

“There was rarely food in the house… Richard and Danny were driven to distraction by hunger and often staked out the garbage bin behind a Kentucky Fried Chicken, waiting for scraps to be tossed out. Eventually, hunger led them to some of their first crimes.”

Prospective members of the Indian Posse would have to complete a mission on behalf of the gang before being invited to join. After completion of the mission, they would be eligible for their first gang tattoo, which represented the status of a “striker.”

The first tattoo was often small and stylized to look like a dollar sign. Full-patch members would be identified by a tattoo of a shield — either on the neck or across the forearms. Large back tattoos were often reserved for members who had done time in federal prison.

Other gangs would follow in the Indian Posse’s wake, including the Manitoba Warriors and Native Syndicate. Many started the same way: youngsters banding together to survive amid the racialized poverty that permeated the North End and inner-city Winnipeg.

Robert Henry, an assistant professor in Indigenous studies at the University of Saskatchewan, who has been researching this topic for more than 15 years, says Indigenous street gangs must be understood within the context of “ongoing colonization and settler-colonialism.”

“The gang member of today is the ‘violent savage’ that was constructed in the past in order to create and support residential schools. Today the gang member has taken that place,” Henry says.

“These are individuals who are (perceived as) violent, they can’t take care of themselves. We’re still utilizing criminal justice spaces and policing to control Indigenous bodies and movement.”

He argues the types of activities that are criminalized, and the groups of people which get labelled a street gang, are the result of a political, racist process — adding this holds true for new immigrant communities as well, not just Indigenous ones.

“When a bunch of boys in Tuxedo are rolling around and fighting, it’s boys being boys. You take that same activity, change it to Indigenous youth in the north-central (part of Winnipeg), and those are kids learning how to be criminals,” Henry says.

“You can take the way kids dress in one part of the city, and move them to another, and the whole concept changes of who that person is and how society sees that individual.”

In a 2013 article, the co-authors of Indians Wear Red — Larry Morrissette, Elizabeth Comack, Jim Silver and Lawrence Deane — warned the cycle of street gangs will continue unless society abandons its fixation with failed tough-on-crime policies and moves towards decolonization.

“We spend token amounts on isolated, short-lived anti-gang programs. Some programs save this man, or that man, from a life of crime. But for each person who finds a way forward, many more youngsters join a street gang, enticed by the money and prestige they believe will follow,” they wrote.

“For some this does happen. For a while. But soon they’re locked up — we continue as a society to act on the misplaced belief that locking youngsters up will solve the problems — and within a decade or two most are worn out, ground down, wasted. The glory and the money are short-lived; the damage goes on.”

Ryan Beardy wants the damage to stop.

Sitting in GAIN’s new offices at 424 Logan Ave., Beardy, a 38-year-old ex-gang member who spent years incarcerated in Manitoba prisons and jails, reflects upon how his story has come full circle, to the point he now leads an organization dedicated to helping people exit the gang life.

GAIN only recently took possession of its new offices — which are being shared with the harm reduction group Central Neighbourhoods, and the outreach group Thunderbirds — so the space is still in the process of being set up.

It represents a new beginning for GAIN, an organization Beardy believes was started sometime around 2013. In the boxes cluttered around the room are files from GAIN’s past leaders, including Sean Sousa, who first brought Beardy into the fold, taking him under his wing.

Early on in his tenure at GAIN, when he was serving as a mentor to gang-involved youth and Sousa was the organization’s co-ordinator, Beardy remembers missing an important meeting.

While Sousa was frustrated, he asked Beardy if anyone had ever shown him how to use a calendar. When Beardy said no, Sousa patiently showed him how. It was one of many lessons Sousa passed onto Beardy during their time together.

Sousa tragically drowned in the Whiteshell on Aug. 10 at the age of 33.

Beardy was tapped to take over his role as GAIN’s co-ordinator, and now he sorts through the boxes of files in the new office space, poring over Sousa’s old notes, hoping to carry on his vision for what the organization might become.

In a way, Sousa lives on in those pages, and in the organization Beardy now leads.

“Being able to read through his notes, the tattoo-removal program was something that he was invested in heavily. It was close to his heart… A lot of people don’t know how much he cared about community. The files show how much he did, and the ideas he had,” Beardy says.

“I think Sean had a vision to do more, to be more, and I want to continue that. There’s not a blueprint here, but there’s a lot of inspiration.”

One of the reasons Beardy is so keen on getting word out about the tattoo removal program is because he’s gone through the process himself. All told he had three gang tattoos, one of which was removed by Steinke, the other two he covered up.

“I remember getting out of prison and people saying, ‘Ryan, you should get a job, just straighten your life out…’ But I had this black mark on my hand, and I had another on my chest. These were gang tattoos, and there was no resource to get them off,” Beardy says.

“My first intake (for the tattoo-removal program), I sat there at my laptop and cried. It was someone who wanted help in the same way I had wanted help. And being able to tell them: ‘Congratulations, you’re accepted…’ that feeling is better than anything I’ve ever experienced.”

The first gang tattoo Beardy got was on his hand. He was 13 years old. The person who tattooed him was an adult gang member.

“I regretted it almost immediately… but the implications were lifelong,” Beardy says.

“There are youth out there that get branded. That’s a practice that happened a long time ago, and it’s still happening today. Tattoos on their ears, their ankles, their hands… Imagine what those tattoos do to the quality of their life?”

When Beardy was released from Stony Mountain Institution roughly six years ago, he set about changing his life. At first he was living in a halfway house, and he focused on going to therapy, to unlearn the mistaken value systems that had misled him for so long.

He got into university where he studied political science, which led him to community activism and organizing. He started a men’s group to help others heal, and tried to give back in any way he could. Given his experiences, focusing on criminal justice reform seemed like a natural fit.

Eventually, he ended up at GAIN, where he’s helped countless youths exit the gang lifestyle. But what’s harder to quantify, Beardy says, are the kids who have avoided street gangs in the first place due to the organization’s interventions.

“What youth need is positive mentorship. When I was growing up, there wasn’t a whole lot of positive male role models, Indigenous or not, nor were there systems-navigators to help us out, at least that we were aware of. But there were a whole lot of negative influences,” Beardy says.

“Gangs provide for youth what society doesn’t: stability, belonging, identity, resources. It’s a place to sleep, something to eat. Gangs will be there… When I was young, how it began, was us stealing enough money to buy pizzas to feed ourselves.”

GAIN has never had permanent funding, something Beardy hopes to secure through the United Way. He’s currently seeking $74,000 so that he can hire two mentors, which he says costs less than it does to incarcerate a single youth for a year.

But he has a bigger vision for the organization, and would eventually like to bring an Indigenous elder on staff, to help youth connect with their traditional culture. At some point, he hopes GAIN outgrows their new offices at 424 Logan Ave.

“The numbers make sense. And I hate to break it down into dollars, but sometimes that’s what you have to do… I want to see educators going into the schools, into the community, a robust outreach program with connections to GAIN,” Beardy says.

“We’re a drop in the bucket. There are so many youth out there who need mentorship, there are so many young adults that need resources… We have communities that are in crisis. The violence that seems random are glaring examples of an unhealthy and under-resourced society.”

And while street gangs perpetuate harm, Beardy knows that for every person he helps exit that lifestyle, untapped human potential is being unlocked. Those people are then able to go out into the wider community and make positive impacts on those around them — like he does now.

He’s living proof that people can change with mentorship and support, but GAIN and other frontline groups like it need funding to make that happen.

“There doesn’t seem to be a lot of resources for us, and yet we have a lot of resources for policing. We’ve been using what little resources we have, and sometimes digging into my own pocket over these last few years, to show some results in terms of youth leaving gangs,” he says.

“There’s all this talk about truth and reconciliation, there’s all this money that comes from orange shirts and orange doughnuts… but there’s not a lot of money for us.”

In the aftermath of the discovery of unmarked graves near the sites of former residential schools last year, the federal government declared the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation — formerly known as Orange Shirt Day — a statutory holiday.

This year, it also happened to be the day GAIN had its first appointment for its new tattoo-removal program.

While Canadians from coast to coast were putting on orange shirts to raise awareness about the legacy and effects of colonialism and residential schools, GAIN was helping someone take off the markings those systems had indirectly left upon their body.

Painful reminders of another life, ink etched into skin, scars of a sort.

Driving away from the appointment — shortly after saying goodbye to Steinke and the first participant in their new program — Beardy says that while he recognizes the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation as a positive development, he also knows it’s not enough.

A single day of observation can’t undo the harms of the past; it is no substitute for investing in community, in the organizations that help people change their lives.

Real reconciliation comes the other 364 days a year.

Twitter: @rk_thorpe

Ryan Thorpe

Ryan Thorpe

Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.

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