Gregory Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heart

Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless CompassionDespite 20 years of education at religiously-affiliated institutions, this is the kind of book I shy away from because I hate being beaten over the head with religion. But it came highly recommended by one of my best friends, who is a practicing Catholic and who had heard the author speak about his experiences on a previous occasion and been inspired.

Gregory Boyle has spent the last few decades working as a pastor in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the United States. Located in Los Angeles, it houses numerous gangs and sees innumerable instances of violence each year. Boyle created Homeboy Industries to gainfully employ rehabilitated ex-gang members, providing jobs, training, tattoo removal, and other support to help them move beyond gang life. In Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, he chronicles his struggle to build the organization and guide the neighborhood into loving thy neighbor.

I didn’t know what to expect when I started as my friend said it was surprisingly humorous. I’m uncertain if I can agree with that – Boyle did have some amusing anecdotes, such as when he took a fresh-out-of-jail kid to get new clothes at JC Penny or when he brought a group of ex-cons to the White House, but each chapter had at least one death. Boyle would recount the story of a young man who turned up to improve his circumstances, only to note that mere weeks later that individual was murdered in a gang-related incident. While it was humbling that Boyle could maintain such optimism in the face of such adversity, I personally felt overcome with the futility of it all while reading. Although it’s obvious that he and his organization make a huge impact, it’s clearly not enough to overcome the problems that the barrios face today. Yet his all-encompassing compassion gave me hope for the future.

I appreciated Boyle’s attempts to peel back the skin and expose the person behind the tattoos. I think most of us are fairly judgmental of gang members, assuming that the characters are as nasty as the exteriors, but he really showed the humanity of these scary looking guys. He clearly wanted to establish empathy, a connection or sense of kinship between reader and gang member, but it was also frightening how a gang member could be joking around with him one minute, then next he’ll hear that they viciously attacked another resident he knew.

The book is unfortunately rather disjointed. I liked that there was a chapter exploring the origins of his mission and development of his organization as well as another explaining his route to joining the Jesuits. However, the majority of the book was a serious of strung-together stories and words of wisdom, which for me was an ineffectual writing technique. In addition to the frequent redemption-death trajectories, this made for a fairly repetitious narrative. The other major negative was the copious use of gang jargon and Spanish words. The oft-used term “homie”, though descriptive and apt, was grating after awhile and I wish I had a Spanish-English dictionary to translate his meaning sometimes as he peppered the texts with Spanish slang. I can imagine most of his audience, the segment not comprised of Hispanic “homies”, would be thrown.

This book is heavily spiritual. It’s not an easy read in any sense, but I would read it if you’re looking for an inspirational and informative story about one man who is making a significant difference in an underprivileged community. While I don’t share it, his faith moved me, and this book made me more appreciative of my existence.

3 Stars

(Note: I am extremely conflicted about this rating, but this is a book blog, and as a book it didn’t completely work for me. However, I deeply admire the work being done by Fr. Boyle and I know I’ll be telling people about how amazingly effective Homeboy Industries is. So I would encourage you to learn more, spread the word, and even make a donation if you can at All proceeds from the sale of the book also go directly to the organization.)


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