The man in the Hannibal Lecter mask wept when Jo Martin started to remove it. Martin knew the treatment could be painful—some clients say it feels like being repeatedly snapped with a rubber band when the laser breaks up the ink of their tattoos. But even that discomfort couldn’t explain why Anthony Ward, a 45-year-old ex-convict with a terrifying symbol of cannibalism tattooed on the lower half of his face, was sobbing into his hands.
Martin stopped the laser treatment. She retrieved Ward’s wife from the waiting room in her Florence, Kentucky, clinic. “Do you want to tell her what’s going on?” Ward’s wife asked him.
In October 2012, Ward’s 19-year-old son committed suicide while serving in the U.S. Army in Korea. Ward was devastated. He felt responsible. He’d spent years cycling in and out of prison, running around with his buddies, neglecting his parental duties. Nine months after his son died, he wound up back in an Ohio prison, serving three years for burglary. His fellow inmates inked a mask on his face to resemble the famous villain in The Silence of the Lambs. “It’s a mask of shame and pain, and for all the screwed-up-ass things I’ve done in my life,” Ward says. “Everybody wears a mask. I was expressing my pain that I caused.”
Ward left prison in April 2016 ready to start over. He got a job, met a good woman and settled down. Soon he grew to hate the mask. It made his wife cry. So this past April, he made an appointment at Martin’s clinic to have it removed.
Ward is one of the estimated 22 percent of people who leave prison every year with visible tattoos, according to the California nonprofit Jails to Jobs. Much of that ink is gang-related or anti-social. “They’re real job-stoppers,” says Mark Drevno, founder and executive director of Jails to Jobs. “If you have visible tattoos that are off-putting to most people, basically you’re sized up in about five minutes.”
Many inmates join gangs to earn protection or perks while they’re incarcerated. Others grow up in neighborhoods where gangs are a way of life, Drevno says. Removing the ink that marked them as criminals can help them become better role models for their kids and avoid returning to prison. “By erasing those tattoos, there’s a sense of renewal. There’s a sense of deeper inner connection,” Drevno says.
A growing number of nonprofits, government agencies and even some private companies are helping former gang members, convicts and victims of sex trafficking begin that transformation. This winter, a tattoo shop outside of Baltimore garnered international headlines when it offered free cover-ups of racist and gang-related ink. In Los Angeles, the nonprofit Homeboy Industries says it performs laser removal treatment on 950 clients a month—more than anywhere else in the world. Jails to Jobs compiled an online map of more than 250 free or low-cost and community-based programs that remove tattoos in 43 states. The group has also published a book on how to start a free or low-cost tattoo removal program.
Jails to Jobs has a searchable map of places offering free or low-cost tattoo removal around the country. Visit jailstojobs.org/tattoo-removal/#map.
Martin opened her nonprofit clinic, Tattoo Removal Ink, in January. She’s a 65-year-old grandmother retired from a 30-year corporate career in project management. While volunteering as a GED tutor in her local jail, she noticed that many of the inmates were covered in tattoos. How would they ever be employable, she wondered, if their ink frightened potential clients?
A friend told her about Homeboy Industries, which provides job training and support to former gang members. By coincidence, the group’s founder, Father Greg Boyle, was speaking at a university a few hours from Martin’s Kentucky home. Martin talked to Boyle after the speech, explaining her desire to help inmates remove their tattoos. He urged her to tour Homeboy’s operations in California.
So Martin and a friend went to Los Angeles. At Homeboy’s facilities, former gang members had access to everything from mental health counseling to job placement services. Free tattoo removal was often a way to lure them in the door. Martin was fascinated.
Back home, she began drafting IRS paperwork, assembling a board of directors and recruiting two doctor friends to be co-medical directors of her clinic. She used some of the insurance money her late husband left her to buy a laser removal machine at the discounted price of $55,000. The laser company, Astanza, sent a biomedical engineer to Florence and held a two-day training to teach Martin and her colleagues how to remove tattoos.
EDDIE RUVALCABA, HOMEBOY INDUSTRIES
DR. STEVEN PAYNE, TATTOOREMOVALINK.ORG
It’s not a simple task. Many of the prison tattoos are homemade, using ink from melted chess pieces or rubber soles. Clients need multiple laser sessions held six weeks apart to allow their bodies to filter the ink. All tattoos fade over time because the body’s white blood cells attack the ink particles and flush them out through the lymphatic system. Laser treatment speeds up that process. With each session, the laser beams break up large ink particles, making it easier for the white blood cells to remove them.
By May, Martin’s clinic had treated 121 clients, with 943 total treatments. “It’s not a cheap adventure, but it’s fun,” she says. “We absolutely love the folks that we take tattoos off [of].”
Ward found the clinic through one of his wife’s friends. He works in construction and has had trouble landing jobs because of his tattoos. People gave him dirty looks—or worse. Last December he offered to snow plow a driveway in an Ohio neighborhood and was arrested for “child enticement,” accused of trying to lure an 11-year-old girl into his truck. The girl had been frightened when he knocked on her family’s door. Ward was found not guilty, and during the trial he talked about how his facial tattoos often upset people.
“It’s a scary thing,” he says. “My old lady was scared of me at first.”
Dave Cutlip understands that fear. This past winter, a man came into his tattoo shop in Brooklyn Park, Maryland, asking for a cover-up. He had the letters “BGF”—the acronym for a prominent Maryland prison gang, Black Guerrilla Family—tattooed on his face. The man was a father with a good job, yet the tattoo haunted him. Strangers saw it and suspected him of stealing things.
Unfortunately, Cutlip couldn’t help him. The ink was too close to his eyes. Cutlip recommended he seek laser removal treatment instead.
As the man left, Cutlip could see the hurt in his eyes. So could Cutlip’s wife, Beth. That day, on the way home, she asked Dave, “How do you feel about possibly helping some people?”
Cutlip balked. “You want me to do free tattoos?” he asked.
He soon saw Beth’s point: He already had a successful business, and he’d been inking people for nearly 26 years. Maybe it was time to give back. Plus, he’d been reading the news—the stories of riots and racial tensions in Baltimore, the political divisions around the country. “It’s really sad what’s going on,” Cutlip says. “If one person could do something to help another person not have to deal with that, maybe it would start a domino effect. And that’s why I did it.”
On Jan. 16, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Beth Cutlip wrote a Facebook post.
Within half an hour, the Cutlips had a hundred responses on their Facebook page. Journalists from news outlets such as the The Washington Post, the Daily Mail and Fox News began calling and writing stories about the unique offer. Thousands of people from all over the country contacted the tattoo shop. Donations poured in. Cutlip set aside one day a week to meet with clients. He and his staff read applications, examine tattoos and screen clients to make sure they’re ready to change their lives.
One client had a Confederate flag on his forearm with the words “Southern Pride” inked above it. Cutlip covered the entire ensemble with a giant, multicolored eagle. Another woman wrote to Southside explaining that she had a baseball-sized swastika on her lower back. She got the tattoo when she was a teenager dating an older man. Now she was a mom, and had been thrown out of a school function when someone spotted her old ink. After viewing her photos and getting a dermatologist’s cost estimate for her treatment, Southside ended up finding a laser removal specialist who would do the removal at a reduced rate and used donations to pay to have the swastika removed.
One of Cutlip’s most successful clients is now helping him identify and cover up hateful tattoos. Randy, 29, did not want his last name printed because he fears for his safety. When Cutlip met Randy, he was homeless and covered in racist symbols. He had joined the Aryan Brotherhood when he was imprisoned for armed robbery. The gang gave him access to certain perks—better food, free cigarettes, drugs. So he went all in. He had the iron cross of the Brotherhood tattooed on his chest with the numbers 14 and 88, a swastika and a Nazi death’s-head (a skull and crossbones) inked inside the cross. Another death’s-head and an SS symbol covered his hands, and four stars on the side of his neck indicated his ranking in the Brotherhood.
Randy was released from prison in 2015, but his life was still spiraling. He ended up living on the streets of Baltimore. Until his therapist told him about Southside. The first time he showed up at the shop, Dave covered the stars on his neck with the image of a sparrow. He urged Randy to start hanging out at Southside instead of on the streets. Slowly, Dave covered more of his tattoos. The death’s-head on Randy’s hands became a lion, the iron cross on his chest became a two-headed panther with wings. Then Dave gave him an apprenticeship in the shop, teaching him how to be a tattoo artist and letting him live in the basement. Today he shares an apartment with his girlfriend and apprentices at Southside, helping Dave identify and decipher the gang symbols that clients want covered.
DAVE CUTLIP, BMORETATTOO.COM
“Getting tattoos covered has kind of put an end to the old chapter of my life and started my new one,” Randy says. “It’s kind of like a family working in the shop with everybody. It’s a good environment to be in.”
As of late July, Dave Cutlip had covered up racist or gang-related tattoos for 28 people, and he believes that each of them wanted to change as much as Randy did. “They weren’t racist to begin with,” Cutlip says. “They did it because they felt that they needed to, or had to for a safety reason.”
The Cutlips founded a nonprofit, Redemption Ink, that funds tattoo removal and partners with tattoo shops in Michigan, Missouri and Colorado to cover up hateful ink for free. The Cutlips are now trying to raise the money to buy their own laser removal machine.
Meanwhile in Kentucky, Anthony Ward’s Hannibal Lecter mask has started to fade. He says Martin hugs him every time he comes to her clinic, and he is grateful for the transformation she helped create.
“I owe [my wife] and Miss Jo my life,” he says. “They’ve given me a chance to put prison behind me.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine.