Ex-gangster's painful journey to a tattoo-free face

David Williams, photographed in 2010 by Kent Lingeveldt
David Williams, photographed in 2010 by Kent Lingeveldt

If you've ever wandered down Adderley Street in Cape Town, towards the entrance to the Golden Acre, you may have come across a skinny man wearing a beanie and selling single cigarettes outside the offices at 11 Adderley. They call him "Facebook".

What would strike you most about this skinny man is not the tattoos on his arms, nor those adorning his hands, but rather the tattoos all over his face. It is these tattoos that gave rise to his playful moniker, but the story behind them is far more sobering. Since I work at 11 Adderley, I have been seeing him almost daily for a year, and over this time I managed to piece together his story.

His real name is David Williams. He's 54 years old, and 5 years ago, on Guy Fawkes Day, he was released from prison after spending 34 years in jail for murder.

Now he lives on the streets, but David is determined to stay out of prison and start a new life on the right path. It hasn't been easy so far – a carton of cigarettes costs more than he makes in a month selling singles at R2 a pop, but on most days he makes enough to afford the R22 for a stay at the night shelter. To compound his problems, he has been struggling for over 9 months to get his ID from Home Affairs.

Without an ID, he can't get a job and without a job, he can't build his new life. He tells me he spends hours (valuable hours he could be selling cigarettes), waiting in queues only to be told "Your ID documents have not arrived from Pretoria".

David's story

David was born in Cape Town in 1960. He committed his first murder at the age of 11 at St Philip's School in Woodstock, Cape Town.

The roots of David's troubled life are clear; he suffered emotional and physical abuse by his father (a Gympie street drug dealer) at home, and constant bullying from the bigger boys at school. When he told his father about the bullying, he told him he was weak, stuffed a knife in his satchel and told him to "do what he had to do". It was an act that would shape the rest of David's life.

The next time he was attacked in the school's bathroom, David pulled out the knife and slit his opponent's jugular vein. He didn't intend to kill him; it just happened.

Covered in blood, David panicked and ran, but the police soon caught up with him. His parents, not wanting anything to do with their uncontrollable child, agreed that he be sent to a reformatory school in Irene, Pretoria, where he stayed until he was 14 years old before running away to Kliptown in Johannesburg.

In time he met up with a gang called the Fast Guns, a violent group known for murder, robbery, drugs and hijackings. They offered protection in return for "favours". Because he was slight of build, David was tasked with climbing through small windows and opening doors when the gang broke in to properties. He still has the gang's name tattooed across his shoulders. 

What followed were years spent in and out of reformatories, and, after committing his first gang murder at 17, a number of prisons. These included Victor Verster in Paarl, maximum security at Pollsmoor in Cape Town, St Albans prison in Port Elizabeth, Helderstroom maximum security prison in Caledon and Goodwood prison. 

Once, in between prison stints, he returned to his family in Cape Town, only for his mother to call the Welfare department to "fetch" him. Desperate and rejected, he joined Cape Flats' Ernie "Lastig" Solomons and his gang, the Terrible Josters, whose activities include murder, robbery, trading in narcotics and the illegal sale of alcohol. To this day his family continues to want nothing to do with him and refused to sign parole papers, condemning him to serving his time behind bars. 

During apartheid (and still today), to survive in prison you had to join a gang and David landed up with perhaps the most notorious of them all, the 28s. Through "doing what he had to do" (a phrase that has come to define much of David's life) he rose through the ranks and eventually became a magistrate – a senior position that allowed him the privileges of deciding who could join, who had to be taught a lesson and who would be killed.

So many tattoos

As I said, the first thing that strikes you when you see David is the mass of tattoos – referred to as "tjappies" – scrawled across his face. Though faded through five sessions of laser tattoo removal (more about that later), they're still quite prominent and even in mid-summer you'll see David wearing a hoodie to hide his face. 

"I was a pretty boy, and I thought that if I tattooed my face it would make me ugly, and I would not be used as somebody's wyfie (bitch)," David explains. "I also didn't think I'd ever get out of prison, so I didn't care how many tattoos I had, or where they were."

Tattoos are regarded as a form of self expression and, once applied, become one of the only things a prisoner has that is unique to him, and that no-one can take away. Unfortunately, the tattoos over his face also serve to obscure his humanity and evoke fear in those who see him.

There is, though, much more than meets the eye when it comes to prison tattoos. It isn't your typical "Chinese symbol for love" or "Ex-wife's name crossed out". Instead, what seems like a mass of graffiti to the onlooker actually reveals a book of stories that allow fellow prisoners to read your affiliations and personal or prison history. For instance, a penis indicates the person is a member of the 28s, a dollar sign means he's a member of the 26s.

Members of the Scorpion gang all bear a tattoo of their eponymous insect, while the letters FG, often tattooed between the forefinger and the thumb, means he is a member of Fast Guns. They also indicate whether the inmate has killed a warden, denote his gang history and convey life lessons and mottos. 

Unsurprisingly, prisons don't actually supply tattooing equipment but it seems that if there's one thing prisoner's are, it's inventive. Pigment for the ink is made of zombie bracelets (thin rolled rubber bands), the black rubber seal from oil drum lids, cheap watch straps, rubber from garbage bins or industrial washers. These would be melted down and then mixed with charcoal or powdered brick for colour and some saliva or water.

The ink would be pushed under the skin with sharpened wire, nails pulled out of furniture, or via a needle taped to a ballpoint pen. More crudely, they'd etch the design with a razor blade on to the skin then apply the ink to the wound and wipe it off. 

David has a vast number of personal and gang-related signs, symbols and words tattooed over his face and body. Most striking are the numbers 2 and 8 in his ears, the word "kaffer" (a derogatory word denoting a black South African), a six-pointed star, butterflies over his nose and the word 'HELP' across his suprasternal notch. He also has the name "Nelson" across his Adam's apple. 

"I wanted to look bad, but now I regret it because I still look bad. People are scared of me, they don't want to give me a job," he says displaying a full understanding of why he is in this predicament, as well as an unwillingness to accept that he cannot change it.

Changing his ways

A life in prison has given David the skills to survive. Or maybe adapting and surviving have been his greatest skills right from the start.

Even after five hard years of living on the streets, being beaten by the police at night for sleeping in building doors when he didn't make the R22 to go to the night shelter (and not being able to lay a charge because he doesn't have an ID), for going days with just a piece of dry bread to eat, he has vowed not to return to a life of crime, as tempting as it might be. 

He has a girlfriend, he goes to church on Sundays, he has friends among the homeless people and those who helped raise money to get his tattoos removed or buy singles from him. Respectful, soulful, reflective, bright, remorseful, determined and hopeful, all David needs now is a break.

As Nelson Mandela, who spent four years at Pollsmoor after his time on Robben Island, famously said: “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

Raising funds for Facebook's tattoo removal

About 18 months ago a man by the name of Fagri Semaar, the then MD of call-centre outsourcing company Teleperformance who also have their offices in 11 Adderley, became intrigued by David's story and concerned about his predicament.

The son of a social worker and now the MD of Serco Global Services, Fagri and his colleagues at Teleperformance started collecting money to pay for a series of laser treatments to have David's facial tattoos removed. They hoped that by removing this barrier, David would be able to get a job, find a stable income and finally turn his life around.

They collected a whopping R20 000, which would cover up to 5 sessions as well as the necessary skin products and transport to and from the clinic.

The pain and gain of laser tattoo removal

In this extraordinary story of how ordinary people come together to help one disadvantaged individual, Penny Jenkinson, Manager of Lasermed skin clinic in Tygervalley, stands out as a shining star.

She not only personally performs the laser treatment on David, but also provides him with clothes and personal items and gives him money for successive stays at the night shelter as he has to be in a clean and safe environment immediately following the therapy. 

Laser tattoo removal isn't easy, but it's streets ahead of the alternative. If you left prison with "Jou ma se ..." tattooed across your forehead, and you don't have the means to have it removed by laser, you may resort to what some other released prisoners have done: cutting the tattoos out using nail clippers or by burning the skin.

There are of course other, more clinical options such as surgical excision (cutting the tattoo out), dermabrasion (sanding the tattoo out), salabrasion (using table salt to abrade the tattoo), chemical peels and other laser therapies. The problem is these modalities almost always cause scarring. While this is certainly better than the aforementioned tattoo, a face full of scars is unlikely to help David soften his appearance.

Lasermed is one of only two skincare clinics in South Africa that have a Q-switched Nd: YAG laser, the best and latest in laser technology and the only one of its kind that can significantly lighten or completely remove tattoos without forming scars or changing the skin pigment. 

The highly advanced therapy works by shattering tattoo ink into tiny particles, which are then drained through the body's lymphatic system. Immediately after the laser treatment, the tattoo appears white, a product of the gaseous exchange between the heat of the laser and the ink of the tattoo.

Before the laser therapy treatment, the skin is prepared by applying a local anaesthetic cream to minimise discomfort. Depending on the colours used and the method of tattooing, three to six treatments are required, with a minimum of six weeks waiting period between treatments.

The skin has to heal completely before the laser is applied again. To assist the healing, Penny gives David sunblock to protect his skin and an antiseptic cream to prevent infection. 

Over time the tattoo gradually fades as the ink continues to break down and is absorbed into body. Eventually, the tattoo completely disappears. As each tattoo disappears so does a small part of the misfortune that has dogged David since he was born. He will never forget the things he's done, but at least he won't be reminded of them every time he sees his reflection.

Watch how the Q-switched Nd: YAG laser is used to remove David's tattoos

Penny says that 70 percent of people who have had tattoos done want them removed after three years, and they see many patients every day, from film stars to teenagers and other former prisoners. 

Depending on the depth at which the tattoos were applied and the type of ink used, removing each one can be ten times more painful than having them done – not surprising when you consider that the laser heats the skin to over 1 000 degrees Celsius. 

"While David was undergoing the treatment I could see his toes curl and his hands grip the sides of the bed as he grimaced in pain. At one time I saw a tear form in the corner of his eye, and we would crack jokes to try to take his attention away from the pain. When you realise that this is a man who spent 34 years in prison, you grasp just how painful this is."

David will have to undergo up to seven treatments to have the tattoos on his face, neck and ears completely removed. He is five down so far and the tattoos have significantly faded.

Each treatment session lasts about three hours (1 hour each side of the actual therapy for prepping and recovery), and costs around R2 000.

The pictures show how Penny applies the anaesthetic cream to prepare for the laser therapy. Note how the tattoos whiten and the surrounding skin reddens. The procedure is extremely painful.

Would you like to help David?

About an hour before we published this story I met David outside the building where he showed me a police charge sheet. The police found him sleeping in a building entrance in Sea Point at 6 in the morning and threw him in jail for "obstructing a pedestrian walkway". Luckily he was released again, but he is a little rattled. 

If you'd like to assist David in any way – either with food, airtime, clothing, shelter and, most of all, a job – you can mail us at community@health24.com and we will forward all messages to him. The Health24 team recently bought him a cellphone, so he will be able to contact you.

Main image: David Williams photographed in May 2010 by Kent Lingeveldt. All other photographs by the author. 
Read more: 

What it's like in a South African prison
Do prisoners have the right to complain about their conditions?
How Bobby van Jaarsveld had his tattoos removed
Why people get tattoos – Health24 users show us their ink

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