Tattoo Artist Donates Work To Help Cover Gang Tattoos

Kirk Mitchell (The Denver Post)

June 14, 2010

When Matt Marquez had a bulldog gang tattoo covered up with a gypsy woman on his arm, it was symbolic of a larger transformation from gang leader to family man.

“I was a dirty scoundrel. That’s who I was. Now I’ve got three kids,” Marquez said. “I don’t want anything to happen to them.”

The large gang tattoo had repeatedly drawn the convict into street fights with gang members, made it tougher for him to get jobs and was a constant reminder of why he attended 30 funerals of young friends and relatives.

Enter tattoo artist Chris “Lil’ Devil” Klein.

Klein, 35, donates his work for gang members trying to change their lives and forswear violence.

On Thursday, Klein inked over the bulldog and gang tribute on Marquez’s left arm in a charitable gesture that could help Marquez put gang life behind him forever.

“I admire people who are trying to change their lives,” said Klein, who owns That Scary Place Tattoo and Piercing Studio at 7739 E. Colfax Ave.

Though tattoos of his two daughters, a rubber duck and a purple hippopotamus cover his arms and neck, he knows what it’s like to be judged merely because of his body art.

That is why Klein has for years offered his tattooing talent for free to gang members who regret emblazoning their bodies with swastikas, tagger symbols and gang names in ornate old- English lettering.

A lot of Klein’s referrals come from Denver cops who have gotten tattoos at his shop. They tell him about convicts who want to escape gangs.

It can be a dangerous transition.

Several years ago, a hit was put out on the life of a friend of Klein’s who had moved from California to Colorado to escape gangs.

Gang members spread descriptions of the man’s tattoos around, much like police sending a description to catch a fugitive. His tattoos identified him better than a photograph.

Klein’s friend had his forearm tattoo of a large brick wall with an X over it replaced with an African design.

Klein has turned gang symbols or drawings of AK-47s into beautiful señoritas in sedate country scenes.

He is particularly proud of turning one former white supremacist’s swastika-covered back into a Japanese-themed lake scene with a colorful koi fish splashing out of the water.

Klein doesn’t promise gang members their new tattoos won’t lead to some long stares in grocery-store lines, but artistic tattoos don’t carry the same stigma or put up barriers that gang tattoos do, he said.

Marquez, 31, who is on probation for theft and wants to go straight, got his bulldog tattoo in jail from a fellow gang member who used a guitar string as a needle.

Years later, as relatives and fellow gang members were killed or sent to prison for life, gang life lost its allure for Marquez. The deciding factor was how it affected his growing family when he went to jail and his wife considered divorcing him, he said.

“I don’t sell drugs or gangbang no more,” said Marquez, adding that he is a retail salesman.

He doesn’t make as much money, but he’s happier.

Marquez has been wearing long-sleeve shirts when he takes his daughter and two sons, ranging in age from 2 to 9, to the park.

The bulldog vanished Thursday in a gypsy’s long curling black hair.

“I’m going to put on a tank top,” Marquez said.

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