Jo Martin is a retiree from the corporate world who now removes tattoos from the skin of people for whom the inked hieroglyphics mark lives of addiction and crime they are trying to escape.
I met Martin when I was recently in Northern Kentucky.
A few years ago, with her children grown, Martin was tutoring jail inmates, most of whom were repeat offenders and long-time drug addicts. A friend told her about a priest in Los Angeles working with gang members.
Father Greg Boyle had begun Homeboy Industries, which offered paths out of gang membership, the friend said. Boyle was speaking at a university in Ohio, so Martin went to see him.
She was especially taken by Homeboy’s tattoo removal service, she told him. Every jail inmate she tutored had them, and the stains were impediments not just to them getting work and renting apartments, but in fully leaving behind a damaging way of life.
Some part of why people remained in addiction seemed to have to do with their tattoos, she said. The markings served to keep them mired in crime and drugs, pulling them back even when their intentions were good. Removing the ink, on the other hand, seemed to imply a commitment from which there was no turning back.
She emailed Boyle later to find out more. “Come to California,” he wrote back. She went, toured Homeboy Industries and saw the organization’s tattoo removal operation.
She returned to Northern Kentucky and formed a tattoo-removal nonprofit, Tattoo Removal Ink. Using the life insurance her late husband had left her, she spent $55,000 on a laser machine – an Astanza Duality – that removes tattoos of black and red ink.
Astanza sent people to train Martin in using the machine. “Never in my life had I touched a laser,” Martin told me. “None of us knew how, but it’s very doable. To practice, we did a whole bunch of people who weren’t incarcerated, charging them nothing.”
In 2016, from a small office, Martin and two nurses began removing tattoos of those leaving the jail where she used to tutor – with particular emphasis on those on the face, neck and hands, as well as the markings of gang membership, and the tattoos pimps apply to brand their prostitutes.
Soon she began to see the bizarre – the man with a Hannibal Lecter mask tattooed across his lower face. Another with a dotted line tattooed down the middle of his face, with one side of his face clean, then other mightily tattooed.
“We take a lot of swastikas off,” she said. “And teardrops.”
In 2011, I went to the graduation of the Citizens Academy at LAPD. This is a 10-week academy the department offers to the community to familiarize citizens with how officers do their jobs.
This one was for the LGBTQ community, at the department’s training facility at Elysian Park. Entering, I passed a bust of former Chief Darryl Gates. I took a seat and watched the graduation. The valedictorian was a transgender woman, a student at Cal State Northridge. As she spoke, I was struck by the moment. It was an amazing thing, given all the department had been under the man whose statue stood a couple dozen yards away.
I remembered that moment when I heard the news that another L.A. police chief, Charlie Beck, had announced his retirement last week.
The tenure of any chief is complicated, especially in a complicated city like L.A., and crime ebbs and flows from year to year. But it’s important, at moments like these, I think, to reflect on the larger picture.
The LA Times noted Beck was leaving amid “a stubborn uptick in crime” – four years of crime rising. But truth is, that’s only when you’re marking time as having begun in the last few years. And that’s a very short-sighted view, pampered by the new reality, which is this: Crime in L.A. has fallen dramatically, in some cases to levels not seen since the 1960s.
We’re now in the eighth year of fewer than 300 killings. As of mid-December, Los Angeles had registered 271 killings in 2017. For 1967, when the city’s population was a quarter smaller, the city registered 281.
That’s a stunning feat. Even more so because it takes place in a city with a maelstrom of languages, cultures – from Nigeria and Bangladesh to Korea and Mexico – and neighborhoods, not to mention gaping economic differences, rising homelessness and more.
Crucial in all this and equally stunning: Gangs have largely stopped the public behavior that did so much to crush working-class neighborhoods. Families in those neighborhoods don’t face the risk to their children they once did. Business owners no longer have massive graffiti to paint over every month.
Homeowners in black and Latino neighborhoods are now able to unlock the value of their homes – in both sales and home-equity loans – in a way that was impossible a decade ago. Gangs, after all, were always the best rent control.
In several neighborhoods, it’s now fashionable to put up wood-slat fences. They look great, but when I saw the first one I thought it would be a matter of minutes before it was tagged in some way. I’ve seen those same fences unmarred for months now, years in a couple cases. Those wood-slat fences mark a major change of street culture for Los Angeles.
Gangs still exist in L.A. and are involved in criminal activity – though I believe they are far smaller in number than before. But their activity is no longer the public stuff — the drive-by shootings, car jackings, taking over a park or apartment complex etc – that so used to blight and create life-threatening danger in the places they called their territory.
A lot went into all these changes and it’s not all due to Beck or even to LAPD alone.
But the new department is one of the most transformed institutions in California civic life in the last 25 years, as that Citizens Academy graduation made clear. Spend time in any LAPD station watching the officers come and go and you’ll see this very clearly. I think it’s foolish, and short-sighted, to believe that that transformation had nothing to do with the current safe conditions in Los Angeles today.
Any department faces conflict, drama, willful personalities, and rogue officers. It’s a rough job and we ask police officers to be our marital counselors, mental health professionals, our surrogate fathers and mothers, and a whole lot more, as well as our crime fighters.
All that’s the day-to-day.
But when a chief announces his retirement, there are more important facts – and a longer view – to consider.
The city will register only 280 homicides for all of 2015. That would seem sad, and for 280 victims and their families and friends, it most certainly is – I can say this as a reporter who has covered hundreds of murders in his career. I know how murder can destroy not just one life, but the lives of the surviving family as well.
To understand, however, why that number could actually be encouraging news, a remarkable event, you need the context. Here’s some:
Pitched as a 10 percent increase, 280 homicides is actually the city’s third lowest homicide figure since 2000 and part of a drop in crime that has been going on since roughly 2007. In fact, apart from 2013-2014, the city hasn’t had that few homicides since 1967, when L.A.’s population was a third smaller than it is today (roughly 2.4 million people then compared with 3.8 million today).
You’ll remember, perhaps, that in August there was a collective freak-out at the increase in homicides that month. I thought folks should have maintained some calm and context, and dealt with it seriously and professionally, which is what it appears LAPD proceeded to do. The rest of the year saw monthly homicide numbers fall again.
My guess is that in a heavily armed culture, and a very large city, we won’t see homicides dropping to, say, 200 a year. So it’s possible that we’re at about the lowest crime levels a city the size of L.A. can reasonably produce. I’d love to be proved wrong, but barring a deep change in our permissive gun culture or a massive tax increase doubling the size of the LAPD, I’d bet against it.
If those numbers crept up consistently year after year, that would be cause for great concern. But at this point, if crime figures rise 10 percent, or drop by that much, from one year to the next, it’s worth understanding and addressing with calm and context — but not frothing over.
I say this after, again, years as a crime reporter, and fully aware that some areas of the city, and of the region, still have serious problems and that these need attention.
Nor am I saying murder is okay if it’s below a certain number. Just that there are stories we ought also to pay attention to.
The real story is not that crime or homicide rose 10 percent.
The real story is that, while we witness blooms of intercultural savagery around the world, in our region of races, languages, and religions from every corner of the globe, crime has become negligible – a minor part of life and not just for wealthy folks, but, importantly and especially, for working people.
Some notorious headlines notwithstanding – yes, Rodney King, we can all get along and, by and large, in Southern California, we are. In the end, the 2015 homicide figures, as painful as they are for some families, did reflect that.
(Hate crime, btw, is almost nonexistent, certainly compared to the volume and the sheer violence of those crimes in the early and mid-2000s, most of them committed by Latino street gangs against blacks, which you can read more about in a chapter essay that I wrote for this anthology.)
The real story is that this drop in crime began during the country’s Great Recession, and is taking place in a region where poorly paid service jobs have replaced so many good-paying union jobs with solid benefits; where dense apartment complexes have replaced so many single-family homes.
The real story is how many working-class neighborhoods, where murder once stunted life and commerce, are now mercifully at peace, and property values are reflecting that.
This morning I was out on a street that was notorious for its gang in the 1990s. I found it quiet, pleasant, unscarred by graffiti. On the contrary, the houses seemed improved, freshly painted – one of many such neighborhoods all across Southern California.
Later, I was in Lincoln Park, talking with Braulio Garcia, a Mexican immigrant who has owned La Guadalupana Market (pictured above) since 1988. Up to about decade ago, he said, gangs were everywhere in Lincoln Park. A few blocks away is a gang mural, apparently from the 1990s, that lists the members of the neighborhood crew, and giving an RIP to a few friends who didn’t make it. Now, Mr. Garcia told me, he doesn’t see gangs or their graffiti at all.
Certainly lifted my spirits.
So on that note I’ll leave you, while daring to suggest that things are looking up, and hoping, meanwhile, that we have a Happy New Year, one and all.
The latest homicide figures in Los Angeles have set off a shriek-a-thon that is weird and seems to me fed by 24-hour-news culture, which is dangerous because it is utterly devoid of context.
I believe in police accountability, smart deployment of officers and using Big Data to analyze crime trends and respond to them. I also believe it is important to hold elected officials accountable on how city resources are used and deployed.
But as citizens, we too have a responsibility to hold ourselves accountable. We are duty-bound to get a grip, seek context, not start shrieking for shrieking’s sake.
By using only rates of increase, those who talk about this latest “surge” in crime are avoiding context.
And here it is: The city has had 185 homicides in eight-plus months – an average of about 24 a month. It’s unlikely to maintain that pace, as August almost always registers the highest numbers of homicides and adds briefly to the statistical average. But even if it does, the city will still tally fewer or roughly equal to the number of homicides of any year this century.
That is not to say that LAPD doesn’t need to readjust its force deployment. I’m not a police commander, but if one month shows that kind of increase (41 homicides in August), stands to reason it would require a reassessment.
Nor do I say this to play down what it means to have homicides in one’s neighborhood. I’ve covered more homicides than almost any reporter I know, and I understand more deeply than most, I believe, what they do to a family, and to a neighborhood, to a city. So I do not say this to make light of what’s happened in parts of L.A.
But we too have a duty, a responsibility, to remain sane, to appreciate the stunningly positive story of what has happened to crime in Southern California (and gangs above all), to not start shrieking over every little statistical increase.
And above all, to use context. Context. As a journalist, I can say that without it you are lost.
Six percent of Americans are black men. Forty percent of homicide victims are black men, most by far killed by other black men, though many of the cases remain unsolved.
This kind of impunity is the result not of too much policing but of far too little. Too often police in places like South L.A. are swamped, given the caseload and resources at their disposal. They can make little of each murder case, which, once unsolved, strengthens the culture of impunity and of witness silence, and encourages more murder.
That is the analysis of my colleague at the L.A. Times, Jill Leovy, in her great new book, Ghettoside, based on years of her reporting and research in South Los Angeles.
I’m only a little way into the book, having purchased it only last night. But this already seems like some of the most original, clear, observation-driven thinking on crime that I’ve read in years – and brave as well given the current discourse over policing in the black community.
Here’s some of what she writes:
“…where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic. … African Americans have suffered from just such a lack of effective criminal justice, and this, more than anything, is the reason for the nation’s long-standing plague of black homicides. Specifically, black America has not benefited from what Max Weber called a state monopoly on violence – the government’s exclusive right to exercise legitimate force. … Slavery, Jim Crow, and conditions across much of black America for generations after worked against the formation of such a monopoly. Since personal violence inevitably flares where the state’s monopoly is absent, this situation results in the deaths of thousands of Americans each year.”
The Eritreans are migrants/refugees fleeing their country and looking for work in nearby countries and are kidnapped by Bedouins.
The kidnapping gangs have blossomed in the vacuum of political supervision in Egypt’s Sinai desert as Egypt has been dealing with its many other issues in the last year.
Remarkable story about the global economy and the vast lagoons of impunity that exist due to political borders and agencies that have faltered or have not changed with the same velocity as economics — which might be exactly the prescription for what spawns criminal gangs and mafias.
Check out the video of Joel talking with one kidnapping victim, and explaining the genesis of his story.
By the way, Joel’s been doing these kinds of stories about migrants and the borderless world for many years now and he’s one of the best around.
His book, The Other Americans, is a great series of vignettes about folks from around the world changing our country. His chapter on the Patel motel clan is worth the price of the book.
Photo: Sinai Desert; Photo Credit: Wall Street Journal