“This life is all I’ve ever known,” Eck said about agonizing over his decision to deface the tattoos that have been central to his identity for 20 years. “But it’s for the better.” He added: “I feel like the change has officially begun.”

Under penalty of a beating or death, Erik Eck pledged at age 13 to adhere to the Latin Kings’ first rule: “Once a King, always a King.” Tattoos that bedeck his entire body express his fealty forever to one of the largest gangs in the U.S.

Now 36, the longtime Latin King enforcer is trying to leave anyway. He is seeking to scrub his past by erasing his gang tattoos through a new gang-cessation and jobs program he and 11 other inmates signed up for at a Chicago-area jail.

The Associated Press got exclusive access over two days to the first 12 inmates enrolled in the largely privately funded program at the DuPage County Jail and to their cellblock. For their safety, they’re isolated from the jail’s 500 other inmates, half of whom are in gangs.

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

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