It’s difficult to erase the gang or drug life, or the torture of having been trafficked for the commercial sex trade, being a domestic violence survivor or a self-harmer. Scars, memories, criminal records, enemies, and fears – they all follow those whose lives were so damaged.
And there’s the tattoos: The once proud proclamation of gang membership, the stain on victims of human trafficking – a $32 billion business in the United States with Chicago as a main hub – or the markings forced on them by an abusive partner. This is lifelong – or was until techniques were developed to make them vanish.
Ink180, a Chicago-area tattoo parlor, runs a nonprofit wing that does it a bit differently by taking the old markings and turning them into art. Beautiful flowers, an homage to a loved one, a religious symbol, anything other than the old markings to seek freedom from a scarred past. For sex trafficking victims, this could mean actual barcodes that were branded on their necks or other parts of their bodies. For others, it could meanthe names of pimps that were tattooed on women or young men to claim ownership.
“If you have a tattoo or scar on your body that’s holding you back from living your life, we’ll get it removed for free,” said Ink180 owner Chris Baker, whose shop is in Oswego.
In many ways, it’s a ministry for Baker, who was expecting only modest visits at first but has since received more than 2,000 customers seeking new lives.
Baker, who said he feels a responsibility to use his artistic gifts to help the community and not solely making money, gets referrals from schools, churches, police, FBI and other groups. Baker began the ministry after some of his friends who were ex-gang members related how much they wanted to get rid of these marks of the past on their bodies.