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Tattoo artist covers racist, gang-related tattoos free of charge: 'People change'

David Cutlip covers up a Nazi-related tattoo for a man who no longer feels the symbol represents his belief system. “I’m not a skinhead anymore.” (Photo: Courtesy of ABC 10)
David Cutlip covers up a Nazi-related tattoo for a man who no longer feels the symbol represents his belief system. “I’m not a skinhead anymore.” (Photo: Courtesy of ABC 10)

A Baltimore-based tattoo artist has set out on a cross-country trip to provide his services for free to former gang members, reformed white supremacists and anyone with a racist or otherwise offensive tattoo they want covered up.

The altruistic mission started out as “a small gesture to help our community,” said tattooist David Cutlip on a GoFundMe page that was set up to make the trip happen for him. Cutlip brainstormed the project after several gang members came into his parlor, Southside Tattoo, ready to turn over a new leaf — and one of the first steps would be to have their tattoos, which broadcast their ties to groups like the Bloods and the Ku Klux Klan, covered with new art, according to ABC 10.

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He said that even more patrons started coming in with tattoo regret, as they were having trouble getting jobs, and people were afraid of them.

“They weren’t scary,” he said. “They weren’t scary at all, you know? They just had scary tattoos, I guess. They were genuine and they really wanted help.”

The tattoo artist empathized with the customers looking for a second chance.

“People change. They do,” Cutlip said. “Everybody makes mistakes, man. And people deserve a second chance. They’re humans, man. We’re all humans.”

So one night, Cutlip posted an simple message on Southside Tattoo’s Facebook page that changed the course of his life. It read, “If you have a racist or gang-related tattoo and need help, we will cover them for free. No questions asked.”

He woke up to more than 2,000 emails taking him up on his offer. “I was like, ‘What am I gonna do? F***. It was crazy,” he said.

His efforts eventually turned into a nonprofit called “Random Acts of Tattoo Project,” later shortened to “Redemption Ink.” Total strangers set up a GoFundMe in support of the cause, raising money for his supplies. But the service came to a halt recently when Southside Tattoo had to temporarily close due to construction.

Cutlip decided to take Redemption Ink on the road, figuring it would be easier on his potential clientele to boot.

If you can’t afford a tattoo then you probably can’t afford the gas to drive there,” he said. “So why not go to where they are and see if I can help them? All I can do is try.

One of the tattoo artist’s first clients during his travels was Jeff Turco, who had gotten a tattoo of an Iron Cross — commonly perceived as a Nazi symbol — while in jail.

“I was really segregated. Regardless of whether you wanted to be or not,” Turco said of his time in prison getting the emblem placed on his forearm. “It’s not a representation of how I feel today. I mean, I was impressionable. And really hateful. Once I started getting out and seeing people I started realizing that ain’t nobody ever done nothing wrong to me.”

Cutlip ended up replacing the tattoo with an intricate Tibetan skull, which represents a fresh beginning and a new start.

“I didn’t understand how he was completely going to hide it, but he did,” Turco said. “I’m happy that now I don’t gotta turn my elbow, turn my arm out so nobody can see it. Nobody’s gonna think I’m a skinhead anymore. And that’s good, because I’m not a skinhead anymore.”

Even GoFundMe was impressed with Cutlip’s work, and chose to produce a video of him in action. They filmed the tattoo artist helping Shane Johnson — a man who was born into the Ku Klux Klan and had spent many years involved in violence before denouncing racism — erase all of his hateful tattoos prior to the birth of his son.

Cutlip, who himself is covered in ink, initially dreamed of being a musician, but his gigs weren’t paying well enough, so he took a different path and trained in tattooing instead.

“Somebody had once mentioned that tattooing was the next best thing to being a rock star,” he said. “I kind of checked into it, and it really was.”

He found that the career was truly fulfilling to him, and he took the art seriously.

“My favorite part is getting to know somebody,” he said. “It very much is an intimate process. You’re letting someone draw on you [permanently].”

To date, Cutlip has covered about 80 regretted tattoos — and counting. He says each one takes about five hours, and some take even longer. But he’s happy to put the time in.

“The people I’ve met were good people, and they deserve the respect,” he said. “And I do believe that you have to earn the respect, but if they’re working hard, then that’s the respect they deserve, because they’re trying. That’s what I say.”

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