According to the latest National Youth Gang Survey Analysis 1996-2007, it's estimated that there are 788,000 gang members in the United States -- the majority are Latino (49%) followed by blacks (35%); whites (9%) and 7% comprised of other "race/ethnicity."
The majority of gang members are adults but in the smaller towns and cities where gangs are just starting, it's kids who are running the show.
Yet, thankfully, there are some kids, who after getting into a gang, realize it's not for them and they leave. Unfortunately, they'll always be reminded of the bad decision they made -- some as young as 10-years-old.
It's not the memories of the bad stuff they may have done when in the gang that will persistently haunt them, as much as it will be something that most carry around every waking moment -- a tattoo.
Part of showing that someone belongs to a gang is sporting a tattoo. When these kids change their minds and want to leave that past behind them, society most often won't let them. The mere sight of a tattoo inked on a neck, across the knuckles, down arms and even on shins are enough cause for many to prejudge that young person.
That's where SKINS comes in. Based in Bradenton, Florida,Saving Kids Identities Now mission is to "save the identities of students previously involved with gang activity by physically erasing the permanent ink marks on their skin."
SKINS was founded in 2009 by Rebecca Turk who realized that kids wanting to begin a new chapter in their lives couldn't start the process until they shed old reminders of their past. But not just any former gang member is accepted into SKINS cautions Turk.
The student is required to write an essay about their experiences and why they would like their tattoo/s to be removed. After the student has been approved, we require a meeting with a parent. The student must then complete at least 4 counseling sessions throughout the tattoo removal process with one of our certified counselors. Each student is approved through the discretion of SKIN and the Sheriffs Office for that community.
SKINS relies totally on community donations.
Removing gang tattoos is important to the young people who apply to be approved by SKINS. From their essays, it's clear that removing the tattoo is breaking the last chain tying them to a period in their lives they would rather forget.
"My name is Jose*, and I am a sixth grader at -- . About 2 and a half years ago, I started hanging out with people in a gang. I thought it was cool at first because it was fun to hang with them. I decided to get a tattoo of three dots on my wrist to show I was a part of the gang.
The guys I was hanging out with were always robbing houses, and I knew that I would get into too much trouble if I kept hanging out with them. Also, if I did not help them, they would jump me. So I stopped hanging out with them. The guys still come to my house and look for me, but I tell my mom to tell them I am somewhere else.
I want to get my tattoo removed because I don't wan to be in any gang anymore because it is just too much trouble."