In the last few months alone, laser removal specialists, tattoo artists, and anti-hate speech advocates share that they’ve seen a major influx of requests to cover up or remove hateful and racist tattoos.
For one such ex-prisoner, Bryan Nicosia from Steubenville, Ohio, having been incarcerated in the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, he joined the Aryan Brotherhood for safety. He got two separate tattoos to commemorate his rise in the ranks. One was an Iron Cross with two lightning bolts on his right forearm. The other, which was placed on his left shoulder, was of the letters A and B followed by another five swastikas.
Nicosia shared with VICE News that he got the tattoos in order to stay alive while he was in jail, but as soon as he got out in 2018, he completely separated himself from the Brotherhood. The problem was he was left with an unmistakable reminder on his body that he couldn’t wait to remove.
The 37-year old steel mill worker explained, “When I show up at my friend’s place during a cookout, who wants to see that?” Nicosia adds, “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.”
Although Nicosia had hoped to have the tattoos removed as soon as he was released from prison, he didn’t get the chance straight away. He needed to find a way to get back on his feet after getting out of prison, and having tattoos removed was sadly not the priority at the time.
But after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others killed by police, as well as the countless protests occurring for months all over the country, Nicosia finally managed to schedule his cover-up. With the help of his fiancée, he found tattoo artist and Ohio resident, Billy White, who actually specializes in this particular kind of tattoo work.
According to tattoo artist Billy White, “A lot of these people have walked away from this ideology many years ago. 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.”
White shares that Nicosia is only one of the many clients hoping to cover up any hateful imagery they have on their bodies that he has served in recent months. His shop, Red Rose Tattoo, is located in Zanesville, Ohio, has actually had a 20% increase in those coming in for cover-ups of their racist ink. Meanwhile, in a number of other states all across the country, not only tattoo parlors have seen a rise in cover-up work, but laser removal specialists and other anti-hate speech advocates have said the same. In fact, aside from Nazi markings like swastikas and the like, a lot of the work to be covered are actually tattoos of Confederate flags.
Although White points out that removing swastikas and other forms of iconography is nothing new, what has been a slight surprise is the amount of people coming in to remove their Confederate flag tattoos. Yet it also seems that it’s become a new trend, not just in tattoo removals and cover-ups, but amongst a number of American cities where protestors and politicians alike are removing monuments that are odes to former Confederates.
White goes on to say, “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. 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. 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,” he adds.
This especially rings true for ex-con Nicosia, who had actually joined the Aryan Brotherhood 12 years before. He explains, “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. If not, you’re going to be eaten alive.”
But now Nicosia says, “Today, I’m not that man. I work hard. I have a beautiful fiancée. I love my community. I try to give back. I try to do the right thing.”
Although White has been tattooing for the past 15 years, it was in 2017 when he decided to offer free removals. In the past three years since he began, his cover-up work has proven to be just as popular as his regular work. In fact, he already has over 56,000 followers on his Instagram account @billywhitetattoos.
White explains, “I enjoy doing cover-up work. I excel at it, and I’ve always considered it to be a form of healing.”
Meanwhile, 39-year old Corey Fleischer from Montreal is some kind of “middle man” assisting people that have reformed from their old ways to get rid of their tattoos as well. He actually heads the social media brand Erasing Hate, which is dedicated to ‘exposing and destroying hate speech and racism in all forms.’
Although Fleischer does not do removals or cover-ups himself, he does use his platform as a way to connect people that are ashamed of their old tattoos who want to cover them up with artists that are willing to do the work for free.
He also shares that after the protests that began from police brutality and the like that spread like wildfire across the country, he too has seen a spike in individuals looking for a way to get their tattoos either removed or covered.
He shared with Vice, “in the last 35 days, there’s been an extraordinary amount of Confederate flags being removed. It’s like the bridge broke.” As a matter of fact, he had over 100 new requests just recently from people asking if he could help them with their 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.”
— Corey Fleischer (@ErasingHate_) August 17, 2019
And it isn’t just tattoos where Fleischer is erasing the hate. He also begun removing racist graffiti, which he documented through his company just 10 years ago, that could actually be regarded as quite small before. Now a decade later, his brand actually boasts of 144,000 followers on Instagram, with another 200 million viewers on Facebook.
Just last year, he also founded a nonprofit which he gave the same name, Erasing Hate, which also fights for the same cause. Fleischer says, “I remember the first time I removed a piece of hate, the feeling that I got made me go crazy. It was this crazy euphoric feeling. And so after that, I started the chase.”
He also explains that his entire initiative is truly a win-win situation since individuals that have made a major heart change are given the chance to get their tattoos changed while some of North America’s greatest tattoo talents that want to help the cause and make a difference also get free promotion on his social media pages at the same time.
It’s notable to share that cover ups are not the only solution for people to remove their old ink. Over the past decade, laser removal clinics have also seen an increase in business, having become more affordable in the past few years. At the beginning of 2020, four of the country’s leading laser tattoo removal clinics, namely Invisible Ink, Precision Laser, Eraser Clinic and the Refinery, chose to merge into one entity which is now called Removery, a fitting name if there ever was one.
Although the company doesn’t only do hate symbols, VP of Clinical Operations Carmen Brodie told VICE News that she too has seen a jump in requests from customers wanting to remove their Confederate flag tattoos and other white supremacist symbols in the last few months alone. She even shares that around 75 clients have recently made schedules to remove such types of tattoos, which has since made up the last 7% of Removery’s business in those particular months. And just like White, their laser specialists also remove these types of imagery for free.
Brodie iterates, “Tattoo removal is not normalized because it’s a nascent industry. 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.”
Incredibly, Removery also gives help by doing free removals for those that are either newly released incarcerated people, human trafficking victims, or reformed gang members as well.
Dustin Ortel, who happens to be one of the laser techs at the organization explains, “People are always a little reluctant until you kind of step back and show that you’re there to help them change. 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.”
This new movement to remove these hateful and racist tattoos has found a network on social media, where White, Removery, and Fleisher have managed to converge on the same space, alongside a number of other activists, artists, and laser techs from all over the world.
White shares, “We just thought it would make more sense if we work together. We’d be able to help way more people that way.”
Both White and Fleisher have been working on a digital database of tattoo artists across America and Canada who are willing to do cover up work pro bono. They also ensure that the artists they’ve put on the list are skilled enough to do the work needed, as well as ensuring that they aren’t some white supremacists or bigots in hiding, waiting to pounce on those working to get a new lease on life away from the former hate.
Incredibly, the duo also uses donations in order to find transportation or child care for clients that need it so they don’t miss their scheduled appointments. Although the group is mostly based in North America, they’ve also started searching overseas to find other tattoo artists willing to do the same work and have found new contacts in Spain, Brazil, France, Spain and other countries.
Fleischer goes on to say, “Everybody makes mistakes. 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.”
Nicosia shares that his cover-up of his racist tattoos makes him feel like he’s gotten a fresh start. He says, “I feel blessed, I feel hopeful. My fiancé 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.”
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