Bryan Nicosia joined the Aryan Brotherhood while serving time at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility. As a member, he received two tattoos commemorating his ascension through its ranks: an Iron Cross with two lightning bolts, on his right forearm; and the letters A and B, trailed by five swastikas, on his left shoulder.
Nicosia says he did what he had to do to stay alive behind bars but dissociated from the Brotherhood entirely as soon as he was released in 2018. Now, he wants the reminder off his body.
“When I show up at my friend’s place during a cookout, who wants to see that?” said Nicosia, a 37-year-old steel mill worker from Steubenville, Ohio. “When their kids want to play basketball with me or when they want to go to the pool, they’ll ask me, ‘Oh, what does this mean? What does that mean?’ It's an eye-opening experience when you have kids ask you that. It's a real awakening.”
Nicosia knew he wanted to get rid of the tattoos when he was released, but trying to get back on his feet after prison kept him from prioritizing this big step. But after months of protests over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black and brown Americans killed by police — and with the help of his fiancee — he finally decided to go through with his plan earlier this month. He’s been working with fellow Ohioan and tattoo artist Billy White, who specializes in this kind of work.
“A lot of these people have walked away from this ideology many years ago,” White told VICE News. “And I think, with the climate of society, it's just kind of lit the fire under their butts a little bit for them to really want to make that jump.”
Nicosia is just one of White’s recent clients who hope to cover up the hateful imagery they once proudly displayed across their bodies. In the last few months, his shop, Red Rose Tattoo in Zanesville, Ohio, has seen a 20% jump in people requesting cover-ups of racist tattoos. Across the country, tattoo artists like White, laser removal specialists, and anti-hate speech advocates say they’ve received a similar flood of requests for alterations on their tattoos, particularly ones that feature the Confederate flag.
White says he’s used to people asking about removing swastikas and other iconography associated with Aryan beliefs. But the spike in requests concerning the Confederate flag is a new trend, echoing the efforts in many American cities where politicians or protesters are actively taking down monuments to Confederate-era leaders.
“We're seeing an uptick in people who have Confederate flag tattoos and have really decided that the verdict is out and it's really time to get those things off of them,” White said. “Your Confederate-flag guys, a lot of times they've never really aligned with any kind of hatred or bigotry. It was just kind of a symbol of being a redneck and a good ol’ boy, especially where I'm at.”
“We have a lot of that ideology: the country boy mentality,” White continued. “I've noticed a lot of those dudes who got them when they were 16, 17, 18, who are now in their 30s and have decided that's not who they are.”
That rings true for Nicosia, who joined the Aryan Brotherhood 12 years ago.
“Going to prison, I don't care who you are, where you're from, what culture you are, you are going to get in where you fit in,” he said. “If not, you’re going to be eaten alive.”
“Today, I’m not that man. I work hard. I have a beautiful fiancee. I love my community. I try to give back. I try to do the right thing.”
White took up tattoo artistry 16 years ago and started doing free removals in 2017, and in those three years, his cover-up work has become just as popular as his tattoo work: He now has over 48,000 followers on Instagram.
“I enjoy doing cover-up work,” he said. “I excel at it, and I've always considered it to be a form of healing.”
Corey Fleischer, a 39-year-old from Montreal, is sort of a middle man helping reformed people get rid of their tattoos. He runs Erasing Hate, a social media brand dedicated to exposing and destroying hate speech and racism in all forms. While Fleischer doesn’t do the cover-ups or removals himself, he uses his platform to connect people ashamed of their racist tattoos with capable artists who support the cause and are willing to do the work pro bono.
Since the police brutality protests started hitting U.S. cities, he’s noticed a significant jump in people asking about tattoo removals and cover-ups.
“In the last 35 days, there's been an extraordinary amount of Confederate flags being removed. It's like the bridge broke,” he said, adding that he’s currently trying to schedule over 100 new requests for racist tattoo removals. “All of a sudden, we have all these people that were living with this [symbol], and now because of social media and the news and the movement, it's brought it to a point where now it’s something very shameful.”
Fleischer started out removing racist graffiti — and documenting the work — via the small company he owned over 10 years ago. Now, his brand has over 123,000 followers on Instagram and has over 200 million viewers on Facebook. Last year, he founded a nonprofit of the same name dedicated to the same mission.
“I remember the first time I removed a piece of hate, the feeling that I got made me go crazy,” he said, about the graffiti. “It was this crazy euphoric feeling. And so after that, I started the chase.”
Fleischer says the initiative is a win-win situation: People who have had a change of heart get to have their ink altered, while some of the top artists in North America who want to make a difference get some free promotion on his social media pages in the process.
Cover-ups aren’t the only way people are getting rid of their old tats. In the last decade, laser removals have become another affordable alternative. At the start of 2020, four of North America’s biggest leaders in laser tattoo removal — The Refinery, Invisible Ink, Eraser Clinic, and Precision Laser — merged into one entity, known as Removery.
While the company doesn’t focus solely on hate symbols, Carmen Brodie, VP of Clinical Operations, told VICE News that requests to remove Confederate flag tattoos and white supremacist symbols have jumped noticeably in the last two months. At least 75 clients have scheduled an appointment to remove such a tattoo, which has made up at least 7% of Removery’s business during that time. The specialists at the organization remove the imagery free of charge.
“Tattoo removal is not normalized because it's a nascent industry,” Brodie explained. “Anything that we do as a give-back is part of our initiative program. So anything where we're trying to help people who want to change.”
Removery also offers free removals for human trafficking victims, newly released incarcerated people, and reformed gang members, in addition to people with racist tattoos they regret.
“People are always a little reluctant until you kind of step back and show that you're there to help them change,” said Dustin Ortel, one of the laser techs at the organization. “You're trying to make the world a better place, and they've had the courage to step up and do it themselves. So there's a lot of pride in that.”
The movement to remove hate tattoos is quickly becoming an interconnected network. Through social media, Removery, Fleisher, and White have all crossed paths, along with dozens of other artists, activists, and laser techs around the world.
“We just thought it would make more sense if we work together. We'd be able to help way more people that way,” White said.
Fleisher and White, in particular, are currently working together on a digital database of artists from around the U.S. and Canada who are willing to do cover-ups pro bono. The duo vets the artists to make sure they’re skilled enough to do quality work — and that they aren’t trying to help actual bigots and white supremacists hide in the shadows.
The two also use donations to provide transportation or child care to help facilitate clients getting to their scheduled appointment.
Though they’re focused on North America, they’ve begun looking overseas and already have contact with artists in France, Brazil, Spain, and other countries.
“Everybody makes mistakes,” Fleischer said. “I'm a firm believer that people grow. Just because one day you were so narrow-minded that you thought a certain way doesn't mean that you can’t grow and realize what you did was wrong.”
For people like Nicosia, whose cover-up is still in progress, being able to cover these tattoos marks a new beginning.
“I feel blessed, I feel hopeful,” he said. “My fiance was in tears when I was getting covered up because she knows how much it means to me. It's a very emotional experience. It feels like a transformation.”
Cover: A man gets his “white power” tattoo covered up at Billy White’s shop, Rose Tattoo, in Zanesville, Ohio. (Photo courtesy of Billy White)