DuPage County Jail program has detainees lose gang tattoos, helps them leave thug life behind

The first dozen inmates at the DuPage County Jail in a new program are trying to scrub their past — in part by erasing their gang tattoos.

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Erik Eck, a former member of the Latin Kings, in the doorway of his cell at the DuPage County Jail in Wheaton displaying tattoos that symbolize his status with the gang.

Erik Eck, a former member of the Latin Kings, in the doorway of his cell at the DuPage County Jail in Wheaton displaying tattoos that symbolize his status with the gang.

Charles Rex Arbogast / AP

Under penalty of a beating or death, Erik Eck pledged when he was only 13 years old to adhere to the Latin Kings’ first rule: “Once a King, always a King.”

Tattoos over his entire body express his fealty forever to one of the largest gangs in the United States.

Now 36, the longtime Latin Kings enforcer is trying to leave anyway, trying to scrub his past by erasing his gang tattoos through a new gang-cessation and jobs program at the DuPage County Jail in Wheaton.

He’s one of the first 12 detainees enrolled in the largely privately funded program.

For their safety, they’re isolated from the 500 other inmates, many believed to be in gangs.

Eck, jailed on burglary charges, got the nickname “Hollywood” on the street for his swagger. But nightmares jarred him awake for days before he entered the jail’s new tattoo-removal wing.

“This life is all I’ve ever known,” Eck said of agonizing over his decision to deface the tattoos that were central to his identity for 20 years. “But it’s for the better.”

One goal is to land Eck and the others jobs in horticulture, welding and other fields they’re learning, according to Michael Beary, the program’s civilian director and chief architect, with employers scrambling to address COVID-19-driven labor shortages.

“I used to beg businesses to hire these guys. Now, they say, ‘As long as they show up for work, we don’t care what they did,’ ” said Beary, a longtime business owner and executive director of the nonprofit JUST of DuPage, founded by a Roman Catholic nun to develop reentry programs for people getting out of jail and prison.

Those who graduate from the program will get help searching for work and moving away from their old gangs.

To graduate, they have to have their gang tattoos removed or covered with other tats — proof, DuPage County Sheriff James Mendrick said, they’re serious about forsaking their old lives.

“It’s a point of no return,” Mendrick said. “It’s a commitment to themselves — and to us.”

The first tattoo Eck had covered was one on his arm of the Latin Kings’ initials. Jail-sanctioned tattooist Tom Begley inked a deer over it.

Covering all of Eck’s tattoos will take months. A roaring lion — a Latin Kings symbol — was converted to a roaring bear. Eck has to be careful to pick animals that aren’t other gangs’ symbols.

Begley and his wife Meagan Begley, who operate the Electric Tattoo Parlor, jumped at the chance to lend their skills.

Inmates painted a mural on a wall in the jail’s three-chaired tattoo studio. It says: “Hope, Purpose and Redemption.”

Tom Begley transformed a Satan Disciples tattoo on Jaime Marinez’s forearm from a Christian cross fashioned from rifles into the image of a vulture.

Meagen Begley removed hand tattoos on 27-year-old Latin Count leader Gilberto Rios, scraping off outer skin, then injecting a saline solution. That pushes ink into a scab, which flakes away over several weeks.

“There’s lots of crying by them,” she said, but not due to the pain but because giving up their tattoos “is very emotional.

“These tattoos have been their identity,” she said.

Mendrick is convinced the program, funded partly by church donations, will help reduce crime.

“I am a religious man,” he said. “I feel I am answering my calling.”

The program also offers classes on the Bible, anger management and decision-making and provides counseling to those who drug-addicted.

Once he’s free, Eck wants to own a business.

“Being a gang member in my neighborhood was better than being the president of the United States,” he said. “I wanted the cars, the women ... the power, the respect.”

But killing of his best friend two months before Eck was jailed a year ago began changing his perspective. He said it was an internal hit by a Latin King who coveted his friend’s higher perch in the gang hierarchy.

“He took 16 bullets, four in the face. It was, like, enough is enough,” Eck said.

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