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Tattoo shop helps former gang members cover past

7:11 PM, Nov 13, 2013   |    comments
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HOLLAND, Mich. (WZZM) -- From shootings to fire bombings, Holland's ongoing fight against gang activity has received a lot of publicity. However, WZZM 13 is learning of the private struggles for former gang members and the unusual place they're going for help.

For some people, pain in the present is the only way to heal pain from the past. "Shootings, fire bombings," says a former Latin King member who WZZM 13 is calling 'John' to protect his identity. "I'd rather not talk about it."

For John, recovery begins on the outside and works its way in. "I wish I never had any tattoos. I thought it was cool at the time. I was young, dumb."

John's been out of gang life since 2006 and now into the Road Rush tattoo shop, where he's getting help covering his gang tattoos.

"90% of a cover-up tattoo is just an illusion," says Chris Cagle, owner of Road Rush. Cagle has a colorful way to cover a person's dark history. "It's a hard life, just trying to make it a little bit easier for somebody else."

John, like many others joined the Latin Kings in the 1990s when gang activity peaked in Holland. "Being in the neighborhood it was just part of life," explains John.

Detective Sergeant Al Rios took WZZM 13 to 17th Street,
where shootings claimed lives and fire bombings destroyed properties. "That one (a house) had gone down totally in flames, and then they rebuilt that house," says Detective Sergeant Rios.

These days there's nothing to see on the side of a grocery store on 17th Street, but in the 1990s there was a mural on the building. For the average person it seemed like art, but there were hidden gang signs.

As the gang symbols began fading away, so did Latin King activity. However, Detective Rios says the organization was gaining momentum again earlier this year when a federal indictment dealt a major blow. 31 Latin King members, including several leaders, were arrested.

Police say that lower level gang members had second thoughts about joining the gang when they saw gang leaders getting arrested. "They see it's not just a year or two they're going to get," says Detective Rios.

In fact, police say some could face up to 35 years in prison. However, John shows no sympathy for his former fellow gang members. "They made their bed, they've got to lay in it."

Following the indictment, the owner of Road Rush tattoo shop says he's seeing more former gang members per month than ever before. "Three to four (former gang members), we used to see them once in a blue moon," says Cagle. "We've turned gang tattoos into portraits of people's kids."

John is leaving the shop with a panther on his arm while holding onto something else in his heart. "What got me out of the gang was when my mom passed away, that was her last wish and that's what I kept to," says John. "I broke everything else I promised her, I might as well keep this one."

A 34-year-old man, who wants to be free from his former self. "I just live for today right now," says John. "Find a job, try to be a better father."

He hopes the needle and ink will open doors and new possibilities.

Police say 17 of the Latin Kings that were indicted have already pled guilty and the other cases are still pending.

The owner of Road Rush says the cost of a tattoo is usually $100 but adjustments are made on a case-by-case basis, especially if someone is trying to turn their life around.

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