MODESTO, Calif. — Ignacio Pizano's forearm used to bear a tattoo of a devil smoking a marijuana joint. Other body art left no doubt about his allegiance to a street gang and drug-fueled violence that left him facing a life sentence at 15.
Now 48, the tattoo is covered by a drawing of Pizano, kneeling and hugging Jesus Christ by a prison guard tower. Other dark insignia have been replaced by family and religious words and images, such as "Only God can judge me," symbolic of a decadeslong quest to cover over gang scars.
"Want to see my favorite?" Pizano asks, lifting his forearm to show its underside.
In bold lettering, it says, "Forgiven."
Before he was old enough to drive, Pizano had cultivated drug customers, struck terror in home invasions and killed a man.
He was raised by a loving, God-fearing single mother, but started to harden when the abusive father he'd never known re-entered and poisoned their lives. At 11, Pizano saw some hope when he warmed to a pretty girl — the pastor's daughter — and gained friends with a stable family life, but all were lost in a horrific accident that killed five in the car and spared only him.
"I was looking for love and didn't have it at home," Pizano recently told a classroom of at-risk students. He found an avatar family in the gang, he said, and the murder gave him the distinction of being San Quentin's youngest lifer at the time.
"I literally became an animal," he told the students, many of whom acknowledged brushes with gang culture in Modesto, Calif. "Your life didn't mean nothing to me. I could take your heartbeat and eat a sandwich 10 minutes later."
In state prison, a gang leader ordered him to kill to prove his devotion. A series of divine interventions blocked the way, he says, including a successful appeal related to his age when he was sentenced that ultimately reduced his life term to 10 years. He was transferred to a less-dangerous youth lockup for the remainder, and released at 25.
"God saved me from San Quentin," he said, pointing to the tattoo on his arm. In return, Pizano said, he will spend his life trying to save young people from making the mistakes that almost doomed him.
He coached his sons' basketball teams and nurtured the Modesto Bulldogs for several years, producing athletes that have competed in college and overseas leagues. Pizano recently left a truck driving job, helped start a Salida gym for high school-age athletes and now wants to establish a teen center in south Modesto's Shackelford neighborhood, one of many ringing with gang violence.
"The hope is to save one, but the goal is to reach as many kids as we possibly can," he said at his Modesto home, joined by girlfriend Shirley Santana. A pastor will provide a home for the center, where they envision teens shooting pool, playing ping-pong and getting help with homework - anything to keep them off the streets.
Pizano has informally collaborated with others pursuing similar programs elsewhere in town and says they're not competing, that Modesto's growing gang infestation needs as many counterstrikes as possible.
"I had a guy the other day tell me, 'I don't live in that (bad neighborhood). I live in Ripon; I don't have to worry about Modesto.' Well, somewhere down the line, somebody in Modesto said, 'I don't live in Fresno; I don't have to worry about that.'
"Gangs are growing," Pizano continued, "and they're growing everywhere. If we don't stop and nip it in the bud now, they might be on your doorstep tomorrow."
Pizano's business plan — remodeling and opening in about six months while relying on donations and good-hearted volunteers, plus proceeds from selling "Soldier's Field," a self-published account of his life — seems thin next to others backed by community leaders. He says he's got the right drive, the right insights and a conviction that if someone like him had taken interest when he was young, he could have avoided a bloody path.
Teens recruited by gangs, Pizano said, are best reached by those who survived them. He has recounted experiences in countless presentations over the years for churches and vocational programs.
"(Former gangbangers) are who the kids want to hear from, not somebody who read it in a book," Pizano said. "When you're dealing with young peoples' lives, they want to relate to somebody who's been through it.
"It's always in the back of my mind," he added, "that I wish I could take back what I did. The only way is by reaching other kids. It's the only way to say, 'I'm sorry.'"