Meet Mr. Buzzard: The Story Behind the Gang Tattoos in This Week's Paper

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The intimidating Chicano guy staring you down on the cover of the latest edition of Seattle Weekly is Carlos Garza, formerly known as Mr. Buzzard. As detailed in this week's feature story, Garza is an ex-gang member who now works for the Seattle Youth Violence Prevention Initiative, mentoring Latino teenagers who have either joined a gang or are at risk of being recruited into one. The cover shot shows Garza's full-sleeve gang tattoos, and the inside photo reveals that his chest and belly are also covered in gang tats. Here's what those tats mean, and how he got 'em.

Virtually all of Garza's tattoos were done in prison. Technically it is against the rules for inmates to tattoo themselves or each other, but, as any ex-con will attest, the policy is rarely strictly enforced. Garza says his gregarious personality endeared him to guards, who then turned the other cheek when he left his cell for a tattooing session.

"I got so good with one officer," Garza recalls, "he said to me, 'Carlos, if you're getting a tattoo just let me know. If I look in your cell and you're gone and I don't know why you're going to be in trouble, but if you tell me you'll be all right."

Garza describes how he and other inmates would fashion makeshift tattoo guns using a cassette tape, a ballpoint pen, and a thin strip of metal hammered into a needle point. Some of his tattoos are remarkably detailed and still in good condition, considering that they were done by amateur artists using this jury-rigged contraption.

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photos by Matthew Williams
Garza says he got the "Aztec warrior" pictured above on his right arm when he was 28 and serving time in the California State Prison in Solano. "It symbolizes my heritage, my people," he says. "It's the Mayas and the Incas, and this guy, the Azteca." He can't recall the name of the guy who did the tattoo, except to say, "I know the homeboy was from Orange County." Just below it on his bicep is a corresponding princess, "his wife," Garza says with a smile.
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The letters on Garza's belly are VES LOS, short for Varrio Eastside Los, the East L.A. gang that he joined at age 15. He got the tat shortly thereafter. VES LOS is a sureño or southerner gang, meaning it originated in Southern California and is affiliated with the Mexican Mafia. (To be clear: Garza was never a part of La Eme, just the Sureños.) He has the words "sur" tatted in big letters down the side of his left arm.

His old nickname "Buzzard" is etched above the letters, and the cartoonish green buzzard tattoo is visible on his neck in the top picture. Here's the story behind the nickname, as explained in this week's paper:

During his first shooting, when he was a teenager living in East L.A., the OG's in his gang sent him back around the block to make sure the wounded target in their drive-by had indeed met his maker. He got stuck with the nickname when they joked later that he circled the corpse like a bird of prey.

Barely visible on Garza's chest in the bottom photo is a large image of the Virgin Mary, which Garza got in memory of his brother, nicknamed Puppet, a fellow member of VES LOS who was killed in gang violence at age 20.

Not pictured on the inside of one of his arms are little tombstone-shaped semi-circles with numbers written inside--one for each year he spent in solitary confinement during his various stretches in prison. Not all his tattoos are gang-related, though--his daughter's name his written in dainty script letters across the back of his neck.

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