'It's not a part of me anymore': Former gang member says tattoo removal will help his future

Erasing a piece of the past to make way for the future. That is what Ryan Kemash is working towards by having some of his tattoos removed.

Winnipeg tattoo artist removing gang ink for free through Gang Action Interagency Network

Ryan Kemash is having two gang tattoos removed because he says he no longer lives that lifestyle. (John Einarson/ CBC)

Erasing a piece of the past to make way for the future. That is what Ryan Kemash is working towards by having some of his tattoos removed.

"I got them to basically signify that I became a full-patch member," he said about joining the Manitoba Warriors.

Kemash started hanging around with the gang in 2006 while serving time in Stony Mountain Institution.

"I learned quite quick you have to be a part of something or be a nobody and deal with a lot, so I became a gang member," he said. 

Della Steinke owns Good and Bad Ink and she's offering tattoo removal to former gang members 2:36

He said by 2009 he was a full-fledged member. He has two tattoos that show off that connection: Warriors down his right arm and the numbers 13 and 23 on his knuckles, which represent M and W.

Kemash said he's served time for all kinds of crimes, from a shooting in 2006 to car theft and selling drugs. He said he realized he didn't want to live that life anymore when he was arrested in a drug sting in Saskatchewan in 2012. He was sentenced to eight years, but served five and a half. He's been out for three months. 

"It's not a part of me anymore, that's not who I am," said the 33-year-old.

He made the choice to leave the gang after his last arrest. He tried to cover up the tattoos to show other members he was done. 

"If you're not part of that gang, why do you keep the tattoos on you?" he said. "It's just bad memories, or bad stuff that will come to you, people see those tattoos, so that's why I want them off of me."

Removed free of charge

He's having them removed free of charge at Good & Bad Ink, a tattoo and removal shop owned by Della Steinke.

Steinke started removing tattoos for former gang members and guys who are trying to get out just over a year ago. The idea came to her while she was working at a halfway house after one of the men was attacked.

Della Steinke is the owner of Good & Bad Ink and offers free tattoo removal to former gang members. (John Einarson/ CBC)
"The very first day he got out of prison ... he got jumped within 10 minutes of being off the property," she recalled. "So right then and there I offered him the help."

Steinke said she lasered off gang tattoos from the 22-year-old's hands and face . She still keeps in touch with him and said he is doing well.

"One of the biggest problems they run into with having all these tattoos [is it's] really hard to gain employment," said Steinke. "And a lot of times they go to get an apartment, people take one look and they turn them down."

All of the removals are done free of charge. Steinke covers the cost with the money she makes at the shop on tattoos, removals and some esthetic services. 

Steinke is working with GAIN, Gang Action Interagency Network, to get the word out. 

Robyn Dryden, who is the network co-ordinator, said GAIN is connected to a lot of support services to help people get out of gangs, but there is nothing like this.

"I think it paves the way forward for people to make really positive changes in their lives," said Dryden.

She said there's no consitent statistics of how many people are involved in gangs in Manitoba, but right now there are 1,400-1,500 youths involved in 30 different gangs in Winnipeg.

She said anyone who wants this service should contact GAIN and then they will make referrals to Steinke, because she is running a business on top of offering this free service.

"Then it is also an opportunity for us to see if there are any other services they need or any other referrals we can be making to help them along with their journey," said Dryden. 
Kemash will sit through at least six painful sessions to have his gang tattoo erased. (John Einarson/ CBC)

Getting out

Kemash said he isn't officially out of the gang and now that he is back in Winnipeg, he knows they will come for him. 

"Getting out of the gang, you get beaten up," he said. "I have seen guys get beaten so bad I didn't think they were going to live."

Kemash said he isn't scared and he's accepting the consequences of his actions, because he knows he's hurt a lot of people over the years. 

"You do things to people, stuff has to happen back to you," said Kemash. "I'm on the right path now and I am doing everything I can to be a better person and that is all I am going to continue to do."

He's now working for a landscaping company. 

About the Author

Jillian Taylor

CBC Reporter

Jillian Taylor has been with CBC Manitoba since 2012 and has been reporting for a decade. She was born and raised in Manitoba and is a member of the Fisher River Cree Nation. In 2014, she was awarded the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association's travel bursary, which took her to Australia to work with Indigenous journalists. Find her on Twitter: @JillianLTaylor