For former gang member Samson Phommabout, the dark part of his life started as early as elementary school. Growing up in the “bad part of town” near Salt Lake City, he was surrounded by gangs. As the only Asian in his school, he was also a prime target for bullies.
“I just ignored it. Then they started trying to fight me. I’m like, ‘All right, cool. Let’s go. I’m never going to back down,’” Phommabout recalls.
Fighting for Respect
Once the fighting started, it never stopped.
“Every time I fought, I got more respect,” says Phommabout.
Fighting was his way to protect himself and gain friends. Why would he stop?
Then the gangs hit closer to home. His sister married a gang member, so Phommabout officially joined the gang when he was 15 years old. The violence continued to escalate.
One man in particular started threatening to beat up or kill him. When the time came, Phommabout was ready with a few friends. “I caught him at Valley Fair Mall one day. We beat him up so badly that he ended up in the hospital,” he says.
Soon after, rivals came for revenge.
Phommabout and his friend were drinking outside near their homes when a van pulled up and started shooting.
“I was ducking, dodging bullets,” he remembers. “I could even hear the bullets flying past my ear. Then I turned around, and I saw my friend down. He got shot seven times—six in the chest and one right through the chin.”
Despite Phommabout’s best efforts, his friend didn’t survive the ordeal. “His last words were ‘help me,’ but there was nothing I could do.”
In an effort to avenge the death of his friend, Phommabout immersed himself in gang life. Even the birth of his son didn’t stop Phommabout from getting more entangled in that world, and he was soon arrested in Iowa for transporting drugs across several states. The case was thrown out because of an illegal search, but the thought of being so close to long-term prison time scared him.
“I was like, ‘Man, I’ve got to change my life. I could have been gone for 10 years,’” he says.
With outstanding warrants back in Utah, Phommabout went home and turned himself in. After some negotiation, rather than serving three years, he was sentenced to three months in jail.
“Not being there for my son was really making me sad and hurt. I got out, and I was like, ‘I ain’t never going back. I’ve got to change. I am never going to have my son see me in jail through the windows again,’” he recalls.
So, he told his family and fellow gang members that he wanted out. Thankfully, they respected his decision.
Now, the question was, what would he do with his life? Who could he turn to now?
Same Gang, Different Story
Levi Lieski was in the same gang, but his story is a little different.
A few years older than Phommabout, Lieski grew up in the 1990s in Ogden, Utah, where he constantly got into trouble—to the point that he was placed in foster care. Being taken away from his family and the life he knew was incredibly difficult.
“To be stripped from that, a lot of darkness came into my life—a lot of anger and confusion,” Lieski explains. “Every single one of my foster brothers was in a gang, and it wasn’t no ‘Twitter fingers.’ You had to physically fight your bullies. And because of that, I had to man up in a sense. I had to tuck the child away.”
Lieski’s foster brothers welcomed him with open arms and provided the love and protection that he craved, so he decided that gang life must be for him. He saw violence, though not quite as extreme as Phommabout, who was younger and joined the same gang eight years later.
At age 18, Lieski drove a car while a friend shot a .22-caliber to intimidate some people who had wronged him. Luckily, nobody was hit by the bullets, but Lieski was sentenced to three years in prison for driving the vehicle.
When Lieski got out of prison at 21 years old, he had a hard time breaking away from gang life. He dreamed of getting a good job, getting married, and having kids. But he wasn’t sure how to get there. He had made friends in prison, so the cycle continued.
“I started selling drugs to survive. And it was so crazy because deep down inside, I wanted to change my life, but my social group was so sick with criminality,” he says.
Things turned from bad to worse when Lieski picked up a keg of beer and 100 pills of ecstasy for a party. As he was sitting in front of his house, his parole officer showed up and searched the car. The keg and the drugs, along with a gun that was hidden under the hood, were grounds to charge Lieske with a federal crime.
“At this moment, my whole family had come outside. My sisters were crying, my mom was crying,” he recalls. “I was so egotistical at this time. I was such a hardened criminal.”
Lieski was sentenced to seven and a half years at Florence Colorado Penitentiary. That’s when it really hit him—he didn’t want this life.
Choosing a New Path
His fourth day in prison, Lieski witnessed someone get stabbed almost 40 times. “I don’t know how he didn’t die,” he says.
Lieski was transferred to Victorville, California, where he was held in a 23-hour lockdown regimen for seven and a half months. He was only allowed one hour outside of his cell, which was a cage outside. During those months, he got into drawing, reading, and meditation—which ultimately helped him change his mindset.
When he was released from prison, the now almost-30-year-old Lieski wanted to make a real change in his life. But he encountered obstacles at every turn.
“The world isn’t set up for anyone to really succeed once you have ruined your life to that level,” he says. “I was a two-time felon living in California. I got away from my friends because that’s what I needed to do, but I didn’t know how to make a change.”
For a time, Lieske was homeless and sleeping in a car, still refusing to go back to his friends and the old life he had before. Then one day, he passed a homeless man on the corner holding a sign—an experience that changed his life.
“I caught his eyes, and at that moment, I saw myself in him,” Lieske recalls. “It broke me down. And it was at this vital moment that I learned forgiveness—self-forgiveness. And by forgiving my past, I was able to destroy that table and let go of all that was on it,” he explains. “I broke down crying and said, ‘From this moment on, I am only living with this new table. I’m only going to put things I’m grateful for on it.’”
Changing Their Lives, Together
Shortly after getting out of prison, Lieski ran into Phommabout. The former gang members were hesitant to talk to each other because they wanted to let go of their pasts. But Lieski had heard that Phommabout was doing well and had even become a pro mixed martial arts and Jiu-Jitsu fighter.
The two former gang members went to dinner and started making plans for the future—plans to make their lives better. And they followed through.
Since that day, they have each made 180-degree turns. Their lives are no longer filled with violence and revenge and worrying about prison. Instead, they have hope.
They have since each created their own businesses next to each other in Salt Lake City. Lieski opened a tattoo shop called LV1Tattoos, and Phommabout opened Union Barbershop.
Being so close by has allowed the former gang members to support each other as they change their lives for the better. Having someone who knows what it was like, but also is a good influence now, has been essential to remaining committed to their new direction in life.
Their new lives have exploded with positivity, and they owe it to their new focus.
“I have made the decision to only count my blessings,” says Lieski. “I have reconnected with my family. I have literally traveled the world as a tattoo artist.” In fact, he’s visited Indonesia, Italy, Norway, and the UK. He even met famous motivational speaker Tony Robbins.
“We went through adversity with each other in our own lives,” Phommabout says, “but we set each other back up, and we continue to change our lives and help other people. Levi changed his life through tattoos, and I changed my life through MMA and barbering.”
Phommabout even volunteers some of his barbering time by cutting hair for at-risk youth. During those haircuts, he’s able to connect with them and help them reflect on what they want their lives to be like. He urges them to surround themselves with good people instead of friends who hold them back.
“I always tell the kids, ‘You’ve got to move on. Keep yourself so busy that you don’t even have time for them. Surround yourself with people who are going to build you up, give you light, and give you energy to follow your passion.”
That’s exactly what Phommabout and Lieski are doing. And the sky’s the limit with the next phase of their lives.
Lieski believes in the innate power people have to manifest good or bad in their lives.
“If I had the power to manifest something so dark and so hurtful, how high would I have gone with that same amount of energy, but on a positive note? Would I be a multi-billionaire? Would I be an inspiration to the world?” The answer is yes, he adds.
That means that he and Phommabout, together, have the power to change their lives—and the lives of others. And they’re both hopeful about what the future holds.
“I’m really excited,” Lieski says. “We are both at this turning point in our lives and in our careers.”
“I’m very lucky to have Levi as one of my friends to be here for us to keep on going in positive ways,” says Phommabout. “We want to use our life stories to change other people’s life stories—to give them motivation and determination to keep on fighting through those adversities, through those hard times. We want to motivate others to push forward and stay positive.”
To see where the former gang members’ lives and careers take them, follow Samson Phommabout at @union_barbershopSLC and Levi Lieske at @lv1tattoos.
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