There’s no denying that tattoos have a place in the darker parts of the world. Sometimes it’s a matter of people unfortunately being raised in toxic environments that foster feelings of racism and hate towards others. It’s also no secret that people who have such strong feelings or beliefs often use tattooing as a way to show their particular philosophies. While some social circles may proudly wear these throughout their entire life, others that escape or change usually need these emblems of hate removed before they can start to fully move on from the past.
Whether this means an ex- member with a gang tattoo, or an ex-Neo-Nazi who wants a swastika tattoo cover up, or young women needing cover ups of tattoos related to human trafficking.. The cruel people running these rings often ink or brand their victims with marks of “ownership”.
Fortunately there are artists out there like Billy White, Michael Prickett, and Nicholas Green who cover these hate filled tattoos of racism and trafficking with beautiful works of art. For privacy and safety reasons Nick did not include cover up photos, and all three artists do not share images of tattoos related to human trafficking.
In August 2017, Unite The Right, a white supremacist rally, was held in Charlottesville, Virginia, Billy White’s hometown. This was a protest run and attended by the state’s members of the alt-right, including Neo-Nazi’s, Klansmen, Neo-Confederates, etc. These violently racist groups were protesting the removal of Confederate monuments following the 2015 Charleston church shooting, in which a white supremacist killed nine black members of the church in cold blood.
The rally itself was in support of trying to unite all major American white Nationalist movements. To no one’s surprise, the rally quickly got out of hand when one of the white supremacists ran his car through a group of protestors, killing one and injuring others. This is when Billy decided to actively work against this kind of hate, and started doing swastika tattoo cover ups, as well as general white supremacist and anti-Semitic symbols, for free. Billy decided to initially do ten free cover ups, thinking it would take some time, but finished them quickly, and he hasn’t looked back since.
Mike Prickett started doing pro bono work when he was contacted by the late Jennifer Kempton, founder of Survivors Ink in Columbus, Ohio. Survivors Ink is an organization that does cover ups tattoos of human and sex trafficking victims, such as those who have been “branded” by pimps or gangs. Mike was contacted for two reasons; he already had a great deal of experience in doing cover ups, and he has a background in social work. When asked about why he does what he does, Mike responded with “I started doing them simply because I could. I had an opportunity to make a positive impact in someone’s life and help them in their healing so I did it. It’s what we are supposed to do, help people that need help!”
Nicholas Green started doing swastika tattoo cover ups, and similar, when he had a man come into his shop, just recently released from prison. “He was trying hard to get back on his feet, but with an SS bolt on his hand, job applications weren’t going well. He showed me the tattoo and said ‘I got this in the joint and now it’s fucked me in life ever since.’ I felt bad for the guy who then said, ‘I don’t even feel this way, I just had to get along in prison.’ At that point, I knew it was my duty to help him. I told him I’d get rid of it at no cost. After he saw that tattoo covered up he carried himself differently. It was awesome.”
All three artists say they have no end goal in sight for their pro bono work. Billy has expanded beyond just covering up racist tattoos and now also covers tattoos of human trafficking victims, as well as people with gang tattoos, and even some self harm scars. Billy is expanding his work into a global initiative, trying to get artists from all over the world to participate in this kind of pro bono work, as it’s far from just an American problem.
Mike has a similar mindset, saying he’ll continue doing this work until he can no longer tattoo, as human trafficking isn’t going to disappear anytime soon, if ever. Mike also feels that giving these pieces away for free not only helps the victims, but also provides teachable moments to the general public about human trafficking, as it’s not something that’s usually on the publics radar. Nick also agreed that there is no reason to end doing pro bono work for as long as he’s in the industry. He will continue having this be an aspect of his work, free of charge to anyone who has changed their life and views.
Mike, Billy, and Nick all agree that money can get in the way of healing, therefore victims, and people trying to move on from trauma, aren’t charged for their swastika tattoo cover ups, gang tattoos or pieces that help de-brand the skin of sex trafficking victims. Billy believes not only in giving people a beautiful new design and a fresh start, but also in providing a safe place with sympathetic and loving people who understand mental health, economic hardships, and dark pasts.
When Mike tattoos someone who qualifies for the Survivors Ink program, costs for ink and equipment are covered by grants, but other than this it’s a donation of time and understanding, with pieces generally taking between two and six hours to complete. When people, particularly women, don’t qualify for Survivors Ink, no matter the reason, Mike then does the cover ups at no cost, often helping other organizations that have victims in their care. Nick feels that it’s his way of giving back to the world, so it’s definitely worth a few free hours of work and supplies. “The world is full of hatred, and this is a way I can do my bit in erasing that.”
When doing swastika tattoo cover ups, or reworking tattoos related to human trafficking it’s fair to assume you would hear some pretty heart wrenching stories. I’ve found, even for myself, that I share a lot about myself with the artist who is working on me. There’s the old stereotype of people sharing with their local bartender or hairdresser, but I think people tend to share a lot with their tattoo artist as well, as it’s quite an intimate experience for many people. Nick has heard heartbreaking stories about people being tattooed as kids, force fed the racist views of their parents, as well as stories as simple as people making bad decisions when they were younger with consequences reaching deep into adulthood.
Mike also shared two stories that really stuck him. “I did two cover ups on a minor one day who had been groomed and trafficked since she was a pre-teen. She put in a lot of work on herself and graduated from her programs in order to move on in her life. She wrote me a letter and hand delivered it to my shop. The letter expressed how much the tattoos meant to her and helped her move forward because now she had positive reminders instead of the markings of her trafficker.”
“I was also able to tattoo a Native woman which was a big honor for me. I am mixed blood but was raised in a pretty traditional Native home. Meeting her and hearing the stories of how many Native women go unnoticed, not looked for, and forgotten really hit a nerve. Knowing what my sisters had endured growing up just being Native angered me and then to put this exoticism of Indigenous women in my face opened my eyes to a whole new idea of what trafficking entailed..."
"Now I had a personal connection to the work I was doing that I did not feel I had before. I was totally ashamed of my ignorance and used that to move forward in the work I wanted to do in this way. I tried to show this woman honour and respect for the strength that she had shown in a way that was expected by my family in the way we treat the women. I had a hard lesson in humility and ignorance that day. I could not imagine if that was one of my moms, sisters, or aunties until that day.”
Billy has heard many stories as well while doing these cover ups of gang tattoos, prison tattoo, and the like. Sadly, they often blend together with unfortunate themes of mental, physical, and sexual abuse. Stories include children as young as fifteen being forcibly tattooed with racist designs, to men getting inked in prison as a means of survival. “A man had gotten the swastika 23 years ago during his time in prison. He explained to me that he had joined the AB, Aryan Brotherhood, as a means of survival and after years of carrying that hate in his heart and on his skin he had since moved on from his once racist ways. Now, a proud grandfather, he wants to be a hero to his grandsons and as the only male role model in their lives he needed to take the next steps in his redemption. Hatred can be taught and passed on, but he knew that wasn’t the life and belief system he wanted for his grandkids. “Teach peace and love.” Billy believes that knowing we can help heal some parts of another humans life is so powerful and transformative for not only the client but yourself as well.
Mike got into the industry over twenty years ago, and at that time human trafficking didn’t get much attention unless it was from overseas. When he first started working, inking prostitutes and dancers was a pretty common thing, and wasn’t given a second thought. These particular demographics had a commonality: both were seen as outcasts and didn’t fit the societal norm, so they naturally got along. Mike believes that education, as well as awareness, forced many people to reexamine behaviours and certain perspectives so that progression in the tattoo community took place. “I love tattooing today as much, if not more than I did back then. Now tattooing just has to share the light with my family..."
"I have a teenage daughter. How can I say I am contributing to raising a strong young woman without being an example to her? If I want to be that example then my actions have to show I believe that we should honour and respect women. This is just one of the ways I can do so. Today’s society is harsh and egocentric. There are a few of us that are just trying to do what’s right by giving up that ego as much as we can in hopes of becoming common people again. Caring enough to do these tattoos for people is putting us back on this path of doing what is right and what matters for ourselves and the people around us. This is how we progress.” And part of that is giving free cover ups for tattoos of human trafficking victims. While getting a new piece can be transformational, de-branding bodies, without a cost, can give some people the chance to finally feel autonomous after so much strife.
Nick believes that todays society has changed dramatically. “The majority of us don’t fear what is different anymore. If a person is black, brown, LGBTQ, all are human, and ALL of us deserve love and understanding.”
Billy says he can’t speak to the past quite the same way Mike can, but he’s glad so many people are fighting the good fight now. “We all deserve redemption and the ability to positively effect the world.” Billy also has a short film out that has won awards at film festivals in the US. Beneath the Ink is a short film that follows Billy’s cover up work, with the simple message, “erase the hate.” You can watch his short film for free through the link and I urge all interested to do so.
Billy, Nick, and Mike are three tattooists bent on changing the world for the better, but they’re certainly not the only people doing these kinds of cover ups. You can use the Tattoodo app or site to help you search for other artists doing similar work.