Dave Cutlip, like most professional tattoo artists, never inked anyone with anything hateful. It goes against his morals, and it's not good business. Tattoo shops usually leave that dirty work for amateur needlers in garages and prison cells—a de facto protest against the powers of hate. But still, his heart dropped when a man walked into his Baltimore Southside Tattoo storefront, begging to get the gang signs on his face covered up. "Due to the size and location, we couldn't help him," says Cutlip. "The look on the guy's face when we told him that made my wife and myself decide to help other people if we could."
In January, he made a post on the Southside Tattoo Facebook page seeking other prospective clients looking to cover up racist or gang-related tattoos. Cutlip offered his services free of charge, which means a lot when you consider that tattoo removal usually hovers around the $500 mark. "Sometimes people make bad choices," the post read, "and sometimes people change." The response to the post was overwhelming—35,000 likes and 26,000 shares. Cutlip never expected the reach to extend beyond Baltimore. But now, he's standing at the nexus of a bona fide movement in the tattoo industry.
Today, there are dozens of tattoo shops offering the same rehabilitation services as Southside. Erik Rohner runs Ye Old Tattoo Shop in Platteville, Wisconsin—a town deep in the southwestern corner of the state with a population of just 50,000. He expected to average about one or two cases a month when he opened his doors to people with regrettable ink. But in two weeks, the store has already removed four tattoos, with a number of other clients in consultation. "I've been in this business for about 20 years, and back then, it was common to have swastikas and Confederate flags up on the wall—to feed that culture," he says. "Times are changing, and we want to change with it."
Rohner tells me that the attention has been a little overwhelming, but the work is necessary and rewarding. There's not much else you can feel when you're confronted with this kind of shame face-to-face.
"There's one girl I've been communicating with who has a 'Property of' stamp directly on her neck that is gang related," he says. "Usually I tend to keep everyone in line and be impartial, but this girl I put ahead of everyone. We're getting her in sooner. She was young, and taken up by the gang, and hit my heartstrings a little bit. She's a human being; she doesn't 'belong' to anybody."
Through these services, both artists have learned that there are many people who feel trapped in their branded skin. Neither Cutlip nor Rohner expected such a tremendous outpouring, but they've stumbled upon a pretty serious need. One special case Catlip took on is Randy (who asks we keep his last name private), who desperately wanted to cover up the Nazi death head, Iron Cross, and other Aryan Brotherhood insignias from his body.
"I heard about it from my case worker at Healthcare for the Homeless," he says. "It was a relief to not have to look at the Iron Cross every morning. It felt like it allowed me to continue moving forward with changing my life."
"There's a lot of hate out there."
The trip to Southside proved fateful for Randy, who was still homeless when he sought Cutlip's charity. Today he's an apprentice, working under the man who cleansed his skin. "I was living in the trap house, right next to the projects," he says. "Dave and Beth [Dave's wife] were concerned for me, and with my expressed interest in tattooing and drawing, they brought me on at the shop, learning the trade. I feel grateful for the opportunity."
In the wake of all the attention, the Cutlips broke ground on a nonprofit called Redemption Ink—the official name for his racist and gang-related tattoo removal service. Eventually he hopes to build a network of hundreds of parlors across the globe that are all partnered under the same humanitarian premise. "I just think it'd be cool if that was an agreement between tattoo shops," he says. "That is a big part of what we are trying to do with our project. We are trying to get Redemption Ink to spread around the country, and by the fan mail we've gotten from as far away as New Zealand, hopefully the world. There's a lot of hate out there."
The tattoo industry has never been what anyone would call a bastion of social justice. Many shops stay open to 4 AM to lure raucous drunks off their downtown warpath for an early morning mistake. The business model is based on a staunch neutrality—an attitude necessary if you're spending a career carving the occasional stupid or ugly thing into someone's skin. Cutlip's work, and the artists following his footsteps, are interested in changing that narrative. The first line on Redemption Ink's homepage reads that the service makes good on "a dream of Mr. Dave Cutlip to afford humanity 'something' through his beloved craft of tattooing."
Tattoo artists may not be able to offer global peace through tattooing or feed starving children. But they can use their powers to erase old hatreds and put a cause behind their craft.
"I would love to see tattoo parlors start giving back to the community or become a part of the community they're in," says Rohner. "There's too many times where I've worked for somebody else, and all they do is take and take and take from the community and never really give back to those around them. I would love to see this trend grow to the point where the shops become a need to the community."
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