Certain names, locations, and dates in this article have been removed or changed to protect the individuals involved in this project,
The faces and tattoos of the men being helped were blurred to protect their identities,
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This past summer (2018), I visited my cousin Fernando in El Salvador. I usually visit him every year or so, and we catch up over endless amounts of pupusas. This time, however, the trip was different: I wasn’t simply visiting family; I was on a mission to help my cousin find salvation by baptizing him in ink.
Let me explain.
El Salvador is a beautiful place but it can be dangerous, especially if you have tattoos. The public generally tends to associate tattoos with gangs. If you know enough about El Salvador’s culture of violence, you would understand that there are two gangs—MS 13 and 18 Street—that pretty much control the streets of El Salvador’s poor neighborhoods, and both of these gangs have the custom of covering their members’ bodies and faces with tattoos. The police, on the other hand, have grown in their understanding about tattoos and the role tattoos play among gang members. Whereas they once shared the same perspective with the public, officers now recognize the difference between street tattoos and professional body art. They now usually examine one’s tattoos more closely: If the tattoos are gang related, officers may detain the person, take photos of their tattoos, or interrogate them, sometimes with violence. The experts in tattoo identification, however, are gang members—they know almost instantly what is gang related and what is simply body art. If gang members stop and frisk you (a common practice among them) and you have a gang related tattoo not consistent with their gang, you will be in danger of violence and death. If the tattoo is just body art, they might let you go, that is, if they feel like letting you go.
My cousin Fernando has tattoos resembling the street culture of Los Angeles (CA). He was born in El Salvador and raised in Los Angeles, but was deported to his home country a few years ago after being arrested for a misdemeanor. When I visited my cousin in 2015, I noticed fresh, bulging scars protruding from his chest and forearms. He had begun to remove his tattoos, albeit, in a very non-traditional way: using a scalpel to slice and peel away several layers of skin. That’s when I told my cousin to stop torturing himself and wait for me to find another option. I promised I would help him figure out a safe alternative, but as I began to research options in El Salvador, I quickly discovered that there were no accessible resources for Fernando and that the gangs had shut down some of the only tattoo removal programs in the country. It is a risky thing for Fernando to leave his small village and find work in the city; how much more of a risk would it be for him to leave the village in order to seek an agency that removes tattoos?
No resources. No programs. But if you know me, you know that I keep my word—something the hood and prison taught me.
So I began a conversation with my friend, Terence Sutton, also known as T-Rex. Terence is a young professional tattoo artist, my “go-to” person when I want a tattoo. And he also has courage. When I asked him if he would ever go to El Salvador to cover up some street tattoos with quality body art in order to help create safety for young men who are trying to leave the streets, he said, “A little risk, a little adventure? Now that’s my kind of project … you can count me in!”
Then the idea got a little bigger after I spoke at the 2017 CCDA Conference in Detroit. After my message, two Salvadoran ministers approached me. It was as if though God was setting pieces before me. When I told them about the idea of going to El Salvador with my tattoo artist, they joined me in planning it out and the project took shape. We called it “Mission Tattoo”: a project aimed at helping five young men (including my cousin) get their gang related tattoos covered up with body art so they can be safer in public and more easily get plugged into a job. The plan: Terence and I, along with one of the ministers and his videography friend, would fly out to El Salvador to connect with the five young men and then tat them up at the church belonging to the other minister guy. This minister guy would then plug the young men to jobs and the videographer would turn all the footage into a short documentary about the project.
Then the tattoo candidates dropped out from the project. Apparently, the gangs in El Salvador don’t play around when it comes to tattoo removal efforts.
Back to the drawing board.
When I asked Terence what he thought we should do now, he said, “F*** it! Let’s just go anyway.” Thank you T-Rex! Real wisdom! So I thought to myself: I’ve never been a push over and it’s almost a useless task to use fear to control me, so why am I going to cancel this project? Fear just doesn’t work on me. I mean, what do you expect from a former gang member who isn’t afraid of death because he risked his life repeatedly and now deeply believes in the resurrection through Jesus Christ? A recipe for stubborn ambition, don’t you think? So we decided that we would go to El Salvador anyway, and help my cousin.
Then a small group from my church (First Presbyterian Church of Fresno) got behind the project, and a small group of friends joined us. This kind of support was amazing for me to experience because I tend to be critical of religion. Nevertheless, this group created a prayer and financial support team to fund the project. Then my friends from Holy Resistance offered to help me create the documentary, though I would have to collect the footage for them. They prepared me by showing me how to work my camera to capture quality pictures and videos.
And just like that, back to the mission.
Terence and I landed in El Salvador with five days to complete the mission, fully loaded with everything we needed: a rental car so we don’t have to ride public transit (too dangerous); lodging at a quality resort to avoid the attention the streets would give us (word on the street travels very fast in El Salvador); and a professional tattoo machine, which you don’t want to be caught with, either by the police or by the gangs–too much evidence!
The first two men that Terence tattooed were from my mom’s village. One was a friend of the family, with no particular ties to the streets. The other person, who we will call him “Elmer”, was my cousin’s friend. Elmer is a veteran gang member from MS 13 who was retired by the gang after putting in work for over a decade (being retired is an honor). Now, this dude is the real deal: He hurt a lot of people, has been in and out of prison, and has the traditional MS 13 tattoos all over his body and face. But get this: Elmer is a serious follower of Jesus, an active member of a small Pentecostal church, and an emerging evangelist waiting for God to send him out. It was a powerful experience for me to sit down with Elmer and hear stories of his experiences in the gang and his current challenges as a Christian. It’s stories like his that remind me that Jesus is most visible among those least expected to walk with God.
Everything was running perfectly well. Then as we began our drive to the resort, three police officers blocked the road and pulled me out of the car with guns in their hands. The crazy thing for me was that all but one of the officers were wearing normal clothes, so you can imagine what it may have felt like being stopped by what seemed to be civilians, holding guns, and interrogating you. I don’t usually get scared, but I nearly peed on myself at that moment. Then my cousin began to argue with the officers and I thought, “S***, this fool is gonna get us killed.” But they listened to him … he basically reasoned with them to let us go immediately; how many Americans don’t come to El Salvador because of its reputation for being the murder capital of the world and for having a corrupt police force; and if they want to see ongoing investment from tourist, they need to stop stereotyping and interrogating the country’s guests. Well, it worked. They asked for passports, cracked a joke, and then let us go. But our adrenaline didn’t let us go. We drove with eyes fully alert of our surroundings.
Then, this happened …
The resort was supposed to help us get away from the possible danger of the streets. And while it removed us from the proximity of MS 13 and 18 Street, it put us in proximity to a different kind of gang: the cartels.
On our last night at the resort, after finishing my cousin’s tattoos, we went over to the resort’s nightclub to get a drink and chill. I don’t drink but I do enjoy hanging out with friends who do drink. There were lots of families and young people dancing. All of sudden, I see Terence take his last drink, wipe his mouth, and begin dancing to Spanish music with Hip Hop style movement. All eyes on him … but when he finished, the crowd roared to the unique mix that he displayed. Then my cousin jumps in after him and starts break dancing, and the crowds thunder. No one dared challenge them to a dance battle, though. Suddenly, out of nowhere it seems, this big guy, probably about 40 years of age, comes up to both of them with his buddy by his side and starts serenading Terence and Fernando with affirmations.
The next day, while we are packing up the car and getting ready to head out, this big guy calls out to Terrance, and I see Terence’s facial expression: not excited at all. Somehow, this guy convinces us to join him, his buddy, and a young woman for lunch—all you can eat ceviche. I answered, “No, thanks.” But my cousin and Terrance kept insisting, “Ivan, this guy is big stuff! We have to eat with them.”
I didn’t get it. In fact, when the big guy’s buddy asked me about my martial arts skills, I busted out with a headlock on him and some knees to his gut. He responded, “Well, I don’t know any of that. I just shoot people,” to which I replied, “Well, I catch bullets with my teeth.” Then the young woman seemed concerned and told him not to take me personally, “He’s just kidding,” she said. I didn’t understand that this guy was the big guy’s body guard—when I asked him what he did for a living, he said he worked as a security officer. Security … shoot people … “big stuff” … oh, and his last name, which I can’t mention here … I don’t know why I didn’t get it.
The big guy didn’t want to let us go. In fact, he said not to worry about our flight and turning in the rental; that he would cover all our costs for staying longer, and that we were going to stay longer. Gulp! Terence, Fernando, and I whispered to each other during the hang out how we should flee, and when we found the right time, we took off, jumped in the car, and zoomed out to the airport, fearing the possibility of an unknown car pulling up to us to kill us. We argued and blamed each other for the first hour. Then there was a moment of silence. Suddenly, I ask, “Hey guys … remember that one time when … the time we almost got kidnapped by a cartel leader?” Laughter broke out and the frustration vanished.
Mission Tattoo Complete.
I went to El Salvador to help my cousin, hoping that he would also come to know God in a personal way. Well, I helped him cover up his tattoos to get a fresh start, but I didn’t have the spiritual impact I was expecting–I was hoping he would surrender to God and find a new drive for living, even in a land that feels somewhat foreign to him. Nevertheless, about three weeks after my return home, Fernando calls me to tell me that he no longer drinks and has been going to church. Moreover, because he no longer has the street tattoos he once had, he is now able to travel to other towns with relative ease; and guess what? Yes, Fernando is now forming a local dance club for teens in the surrounding villages as an alternative to the streets. The name of the group is BBoyz Break Dancing Crew, and he has invited me to help support it. I think I sense a Mission Break Dancing Project coming soon, don’t you think?
There is so much to process from this trip. Two things come to mind for now: First, I’ve been thinking a lot about how important it is for us Americans to stay informed about how our immigration policies affect people and the role our nation played in creating the culture of violence, the gang epidemic in, and the waves of migrations from Central America. Second, I have to remind myself that God is very present in El Salvador and that any effort, including this Mission Tattoo Project, is nothing but a very small part to God’s big plan for the people of this beautiful country. The true heroes in the land can be found among the poor and even among those who have been labeled notorious gang leaders.