Hate Tattoos and Personal Branding

Early in the spring of 2017 I read an article about a Maryland tattoo artist offering free cover-ups of hate- and gang-related tattoos, shared by a Virginia artist who was considering beginning the same practice in her own parlor. In the article, the artist and shop owner recounts being unable to help a customer who wished to have the gang tattoos on his face removed/covered, and recognizing the emotional turmoil and difficulty that arises when permanent body modification runs contrary to personal growth and development. “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” The Washington Post quotes Dave Cutlip of Southside Tattoo, as he describes his motivation for starting The Random Acts of Tattoo Project.


It is a commendable goal, and a charitable effort I applaud, especially when one considers that not all hate/gang ink is freely and willingly obtained.


In light of the terrorist rally in Charlottesville Virginia on August 12, and photos of parades of Nazi tattoos, I was reminded of this charity, and sought out the article in a search for hope that people can and do change. Unfortunately, my second reading was not as uplifting as my initial encounter, as it became clear from the interviews that the intentions of the clients may not be as positive as Cutlip hopes.


One beneficiary sought Cutlip's aid in covering a "Southern Pride" tattoo (complete with confederate flag and noose) with what "he deemed patriotic: an eagle." The article states that the tattoo owner proclaimed that "though he's not a racist ... the tattoo made him look like one," and that it was originally obtained when he was "young and dumb," suggesting that the man had seen the error of his earlier beliefs. Given the pathos of the article as a whole, the man's decision is suggestively positive, and in line with Cutlip's mission of making a difference by removing hate. However, his stated motivations challenge this narrative, as journalist Justin Moyer writes that the man "hopes to move into management at the trucking company where he works and worries the tattoo could hold him back." Less of a tale of redemption, his anxiety speaks to a recognition that hate-ink comes with social consequences, rather than a shift in perspective and understanding. One might argue instead that the tattoo-wearer was fearful of the accountability and consequences of having a hate tattoo. “It’s not something I would wish on anyone... A racist [or] gang tattoo puts a target on you.”


Many terrorists from the Virginia rally are now finding themselves within this target, as social media calls for accountability. Accounts such as Twitter's @YesYoureRacist are working to identify attendees and perpetrators of violence, asking that they be held accountable for their criminal behavior, such as the man responsible for assaulting Dre Harris, and violation of social contract policies, such as anti-hate policies promoted by universities. As many have said, free speech does not protect freedom from accountability.

In light of this social media movement, I find myself wondering about the motivation for seeking out the help of charitable organizations such as the Random Acts of Tattoos. There are those, like a young woman asking for the removal of a gang "Property of" tattoo from her neck that "hit [the] heartstrings" such as tattoo artist Erik Rohner relates, who is "a human being; she doesn't 'belong' to anybody." But what of the countless swastika tattoos pictured in Charlottesville, and beyond? Are these charity beneficiaries changing for the better, or are they (as I'm not the first to question) protecting themselves from the social and professional consequences of their beliefs?


Though I would not suggest that this is a universal truth, and still hope that the service is a tool for positive social change, I fear that the desires of the beneficiaries may not be as commendable as the tattoo artists trying to make a positive change.

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