Dave and Elizabeth Cutlip co-founded Redemption Tattoos, a free service of the tattoo parlor they own in Brooklyn Park, Maryland, just south of Baltimore. Covered with tattoos himself, Cutlip has long been an expert in providing custom-designed skin art to their clients.
But a couple of years ago, Dave got another request: to remove a tattoo. A man came to the tattoo parlor and asked Dave to remove one from his face. It was the symbol of a prison gang. The Cutlips urged him to get laser treatments. Elizabeth remembers, “On the way home, I said to Dave, we could probably help a lot of people, you know, cover up these gang tattoos so they could get jobs and re-enter society and not have that stigma attached to them.”
Dave thought it was a great idea. Covering up a tattoo can take as much five hours and cost anywhere from several hundred to more than a thousand dollars. The Cutlips decided to offer the service for free, with one condition: If the person wanting to cover up a gang-related, racist, or otherwise hateful tattoo—e.g., a swastika, a Confederate flag, a “White Power” statement—wasn’t genuinely changing his views, then Dave wouldn’t do it.
He’s adamant about that. “I had a guy come in here, he was a skinhead, and he definitely wasn't finished. He had fresh tattoos, and not just fresh tattoos, but fresh swastikas, fresh SS's, stuff like that. He just wanted to hide. I'm not here to help you hide.”
The Cutlips went on Facebook to advertise their offer; by the following morning, they’d received almost 2,000 requests. They couldn’t afford to meet all the need, so they started a GoFundMe account, and used it to create Redemption Ink.
Some gangs didn’t like the idea of their symbols being eliminated. “I did get some threats,” says Dave. “Death threats and stuff like that. It is hot water. Even though I’m trying to do a good thing, there’s people out there that don’t look at it that way.”
There are other people however, who do look at it that way, and Dave gets requests from people all over the county, people who are wising up and want to get hate symbols replaced by the artful images that Dave can make, hiding those symbols. There’s a year-long wait list at Redemption Ink.
The Cutlips are committed to keeping it going. As Elizabeth says, “A lot of the people that we help, they weren't brought up being racists. A lot of times they hooked up with the wrong people at the wrong time, especially during those teenage years. Nine times out of 10, they don't understand why they're even hating another group.”
Perhaps the sentiment that sums this up the best is what the Cutlips put on their original Facebook post: “Sometimes people make bad choices, and sometimes people change. We believe that there is enough hate in this world, and we want to make a difference.”