When he was 10, Justin Tolbert lost his father to a drug overdose.
Three years later, following in his late father’s footsteps, Tolbert joined a gang. A member of the Simon City Royals, Tolbert began selling drugs. Then, when he was 15, his best friend was shot and killed in front of him.
“God saved me then, I just didn’t know it,” Tolbert said. “He’s been with me the whole time, I just never knew it.”
Tolbert, 26, has been stabbed multiple times. His nose was broken when he was hit with brass knuckles. His face is marked with scars and tattoos.
During a stint in prison, he got a teardrop tattoo under his right eye to represent his father and his friend. A second prison tattoo, a crown representing his allegiance to the Simon City Royals, was inked above his right eyebrow.
Monday, Tolbert got the tattoos removed.
“It feels like one million pounds has been lifted off of my chest,” he said this week. “You don’t know.”
Dr. Adair Blackledge with Blackledge Face Center in Jackson removed Tolbert’s tattoos free of charge.
‘God uses me’
For 14 years, Blackledge, as part of a ministry effort, has removed tattoos from men and women who have given their lives to Christ.
“So many people look at plastic surgery as what Hollywood or what Beverly Hills puts out as this world of glitz and glamour, and, really, I tell people all the time I want my clinic to be a ministry and not a plastic surgery clinic,” he said.
Blackledge said he feels God uses him as a vessel to help the men and women start anew.
“Every one of them has a story, they all do,” Blackledge said. “They are definitely heroes. All I do is change their appearance. I really look at it more as God uses me to change tattoos that remind them of mistakes they have made. He changes their life, and I just try to be obedient to what he asks me to do.”
I’ve seen guys get killed for less than what I did denouncing the gang. I really am just grateful for what God has done in my life.
Paul May of Gulfport
Last year, Tolbert was in jail for burglary. His mother wrote him a letter, telling him she would never give up on him but she was letting go and trusting God. She wrote the verse Jeremiah 29:11 at the bottom of the letter.
“Right there I broke down on my knees and I begged God to show me the way,” Tolbert said. “After that, I got blessed. I got out of jail and I tried to live right.”
As part of his newfound faith, Tolbert joined the City of Refuge, a faith-based recovery program for men in Lucedale.
His life hasn’t been the same.
“Jesus gives the hardest battles to the strongest soldiers,” he said. “I believe that’s why he had us go through these things, so we can go out and we can minister to people and we can change people’s lives. If you don’t know what bad there is out there, you can’t tell people what you’ve been through.”
First in command
Like Tolbert, Paul May is a former gang member.
May, 40, of Gulfport, was the highest ranking member of the Latin Kings when he became a Christian.
“He told me, ‘Come to me,’” May said. “I fell on my knees and I asked Jesus Christ to come into my life. He’s been with me ever since.”
Serving time at the State Penitentiary in Parchman on a drug possession charge at the time of his conversion, May said God spoke to him and told him to renounce the gang.
May responded, ‘Lord, they’re going to kill me.’
With faith God would protect him, May told his fellow gang members he wanted to walk away from the Latin Kings. He compared God’s protection of him to the story of Daniel in the lion’s den.
Though he was told there would be “repercussions” for his decision, not a single person threatened May with violence.
“I’ve seen guys get killed for less than what I did denouncing the gang,” he said. “I really am just grateful for what God has done in my life. I wish no ill will against gang members. I pray for them. I pray for their souls. I pray that God touches their lives and uses their testimony to save people.”
The tattoos on his face, a five-point star beneath his right eye and two teardrops under his left eye, represent his former ties to the gang.
“When other guys in the gang see them, they know I’m a ranking member,” May said. “I was on the front line, I was the guy who went out and got at people, that’s how I earned my rank. Then I was the guy that ran the whole show. I was the first in command in the whole state of Mississippi.”
‘The morning star’
May said he first joined the gang when he was 10 or 11 years old. Addicted to spice and cocaine, he’s been to prison five times since he was 18.
“The neighborhood I come from, when you got old enough to run around without mama and daddy, you became that,” he said. “I was young. You’re forced into things that you really don’t want to do. It’s drug dealing, it’s violence, you know, but there is hope for these men that are in these gangs and there’s hope for everybody in any situation. As long as you’re still breathing, Jesus Christ has a plan for your life. I suggest you get to it before it gets rough.”
May is also in the recovery program at City of Refuge. After he finishes, he’ll be transferred to Harrison County for pending charges. He risks being sentenced as a habitual offender.
A former user of marijuana and “ice” or methamphetamine, May said he no longer desires things from his past.
“The things that I used to want, used to desire that my heart craved, it’s no longer,” he said. “All I want is Jesus and what he wants for me and that’s enough. There’s no high like the most high.”
I’m a new man and I won’t be judged for what I used to be and what I’ve done. ... I’m going to change lives, I know I am and these scars will prove it.
Justin Tolbert after getting his gang tattoo removed
During the procedure to remove his tattoo, May lay on his back, mostly quiet as Blackledge cut the tattoos off of his face.
To May, the tattoo removal wasn’t just a removal of the ink, but a cleansing from his past.
Blackledge asked May if he wanted to keep his star tattoo.
“Throw it away,” he said. “Jesus is my star, the morning star.”
Tolbert tried to remove his tattoos before. He put a lit cigar to his face to try to burn off the ink. It didn’t work.
“When people look at us, they judge you,” he said. “They don’t know your story and what you’ve been through.”
After Blackledge removed his tattoos, Tolbert immediately called his mom.
“I’m a new man and I won’t be judged for what I used to be and what I’ve done. I’m blessed,” he said. “I’m going to change lives, I know I am and these scars will prove it. I want to go tell the world.”