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Foster Youth Tattoos – Marking Life

foster youth oakland body work tattoos

In the photograph, a young man in a white tank top sits atop a toilet tank. The photo pulled me in, its inscription stopped me still.

“Russell is a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation, a father to his daughter and son, a student at Cal Berkeley double majoring in Anthropology and South and Southeast Asian Studies. Collectively, Russell’s tattoos signify his search for permanency…” – from Tribute, an exhibit of the Foster Youth Museum running through Friday at Pro Arts Gallery in Oakland.

Earlier this year, we covered the launch of the Foster Youth Museum and its inaugural exhibit, Lost Childhoods. Museum founder Jamie Lee Evans met me at Pro Arts Gallery to talk about Tribute: Foster Youth and Tattoos, its third exhibit. At first reluctant to bring in a non-foster youth to take portraits for Lost Childhoods, Jamie found herself won over by photographer Ray Bussolari’s approach. “He took time, he conducts interviews with the youth to really find out who they are…his photographs told the story so well.” The black and white photographs reveal the nuance of experiences and their presence. They seem neither hardened, nor innocent. Neither victims, nor exemplars. They do not hide themselves.

foster youth tattoos body art

body art tattoos foster youth

Jamie: In the process of photographing youth [for the first exhibit], Ray noticed their tattoos and he himself has tattoos. He started hearing their stories about them. So he said we should do a photography exhibit just on tattoos. It was a process of me reaching out to young people that I know (from all over California)… It’s not just about tattoos, it’s all about tattoos that came from the foster youth experience.

When I said ‘yes’ to this, it wasn’t just because Ray’s a great photographer, it was also because the tattoo/body art community is not necessarily a community that knows a lot about foster care. This would be an opportunity to reach to a whole new subset of people. And, we’re also reaching people interested in photography and art.

When I see the photographs I see depth… It brings you to understand foster youth in a depth-full way.  What I want people to see is the beauty of these young people. A lot of people think foster youth are criminals, they’re invisible, they’re dead, they’re insignificant and ugly, they’re nothing to be proud of so let’s just not talk about them.

But in reality they are your neighbors and they are your friends, and they’re beautiful.

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The Museum grew out of the Youth Training Project. It stands for Youth Offering Unique Tangible Help and began as a “collaboration between current and former foster youth (ages 16-24), child welfare professionals, and youth-serving organizations. We empower transition-age foster youth, who are experts in navigating the foster care system, to develop and deliver best-practice training for professionals who support transition-age youth.”

Jamie mentioned priority policy issues for foster youth advocates in California: 1) pushing back against over-medication of foster youth 2) helping separated siblings maintain their relationships 3) ensuring children of foster youth themselves are not separated from their parents.

Photos of original photos by Ray Bussolari. Exhibit runs through Friday, November 20 at Pro Arts Gallery, 150 Frank Ogawa Plaza, Oakland, CA

Contact the Foster Youth Museum for exhibit rentals.


  1. We at the Y.O.U.T.H. Training Project and our host organization California Youth Connection thank you for your coverage. The show is beautiful, unique and tells stories through image and narrative in an unprecedented way.

    If you know a lot about foster youth, or nothing at all, this show will open your mind and heart. Come and witness together with us. And on Thursday share a glass of cider and toast the strength, resilience and power of foster youth with us!

  2. The exhibit was like someone punched me straight in the emotions! It shifted my preexisting paradigms surrounding foster youth and the experiences they go through within the system. I found the presentation of the portraits (in black and white) to appropriately display the light and dark natures of the tattoos, where most reflected a dark past but also yearned for a brighter future. The stories hold the true value for this museum though, because they display tales of heartbreak, trial, courage, and a will to keep on living no matter the circumstances. If you have not seen this museum you are definitely missing out on something spectacular.

    • Haleh says

      We agree. The visuals and accompanying stories go far to share the complex journey of these young people.

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