Whether resulting from a drunken lark or a rite of passage, the loss of a loved one or the urge to make an aesthetic statement, tattoos have become part of everyday life. But for some children of Salvadoran immigrants growing up in rough inner-city neighborhoods, tattoos can be a matter of life or death.

Paul Flores' play "Placas: The Most Dangerous Tattoo" is a fraught tale of generational conflict that explores the heavy stakes involved with acquiring (and removing) gang insignia. Starring Ric Salinas, a founding member of the influential satirical Latino performance company Culture Clash, a new production of "Placas" runs Jan. 21-24 at Richmond's Iron Triangle Theater in the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts.

The Salvadoran-born Salinas has been involved with the play since its sold-out premiere in 2012 at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre in Union Square as a co-production of the San Francisco International Arts Festival (SFIAF) and the Central American Resource Center. Performed widely, including critically hailed runs at the Los Angeles Theater Center and off-Broadway at the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater in New York City, "Placas" was conceived as both emotionally wrenching drama and community outreach.

Directed by the Latino Theater Company's Fidel Gomez, the Richmond production of "Placas" (barrio slang for body tattoos) "is a new version, totally revamped," says Salinas, who experienced gang violence firsthand when he was shot in San Francisco's Mission District while trying to break up a fight outside his home.


"I think this new version will impact people more deeply," he says. "We've honed the message very tightly. We've invested in production elements, building a new set and bringing in a projectionist, a new director and new actors, like Xavi Moreno, Sarita Ocón and Zilah Mendoza," who won an Obie for playing Ana in Lisa Loomer's hit "Living Out," a role she originated.

"Placas" grew out of the notorious mistaken-identity triple murder of a father and his two sons in 2008 by a Salvadoran-born gang member in San Francisco's Excelsior district. The case sparked widespread political repercussions, including funding cuts for the Central American Resource Center, which provides health services to immigrant communities.

"One program that lost funding involved a tattoo removal," says playwright Paul Flores. "Many were young people on probation who could get their sentences reduced if they got tattoos removed, and the funds got pulled."

With a grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission and the support of the SFIAF, Flores set out to interview dozens of gang members, their families and gang intervention workers in the Bay Area, Los Angeles and San Salvador. In many ways he wasn't an obvious choice for the gig. A co-founder of the influential spoken word forum Youth Speaks, he's a poet and spoken word artist of Mexican and Cuban descent "who had no direct connection to the Central American community," he says.

He spent a lot of time with ex-gang member Alex Sanchez, founder of the L.A.-based violence prevention nonprofit Homies Unidos. After a while, it became clear that Sanchez's story had all the makings of a powerful drama, and he provided the model for Fausto "Placas" Carbajal, a Salvadoran immigrant who tries to reconnect with his family as he resists his old gang ties.

"Alex started telling me his story," Flores says. "He was supposed to be a consultant, but he ended up being my main story. I've been in San Francisco for 21 years and worked with gang members, but he got me access to places I would have never gotten into. I looked like a cop. I don't carry any kind of swagger. I'd watch how he'd work it. He taught me a lot about humility, about listening and sharing and wanting to help anyone."

While "Placas" is a play that can (and has) stood on its own as a work of art, Flores and his cast are also working with community organizations to address violence. There have been a series of workshops at the Center for the Performing Arts, and another is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Thursday.

It's a tricky balance, empowering communities to tell their own stories while avoiding being relegated to the margins as "some social intervention theater piece," Salinas says. "If it's about poor brown people, it's intervention theater. If it's a white family, it's theatah."

Contact Andrew Gilbert at jazzscribe@aol.com.

'Placas: The Most Dangerous Tattoo'

When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 21-24
Where: Iron Triangle Theater, East Bay Center for the Performing Arts, 339 11th St., Richmond
Tickets: $15; 510-234-5624, www.placas.org