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Chris Baker is a tattoo artist from Oswego, Ill. who runs a non-profit organization to help remove tattoos associated with gang life and sex trafficking

Tattoo removal service takes away marks of violence

by Eliza Larson
May 21, 2014


Eliza Larson/MEDILL

A tattoo parlor is helping one Oswego man leave his mark on society

A tattoo shop in Oswego, Ill. is leaving its mark on society.

Chris Baker's shop offers tattoo services to clients, but he also runs a non-profit organization that helps remove tattoos associated with gang life and sex trafficking. Baker calls the business Ink180 because he believes the services they provide help people turn their lives around.

“People will ask me, why do you do this for free?” Baker said about his pro bono work removing ink. "It’s the looks on the people’s faces. When they don’t have to look at that old tattoo anymore. Now they can live their life as who they really are.”

Tattoos are sometimes visible indicators of a person's social group. Baker said some men can’t go out to dinner with their families without being recognized by their tattoos. And they cannot drive their cars for risk of getting pulled over by police because of the images on their arms.

“When you’re covered in gang tattoos and you’re no longer in that life,” Baker said. “You’re in a lot of danger from your old friends, your old enemies, the police, and you’re going to have a hard time getting a job.”

Baker’s wife, Lisa, said the tattoo removal process is an emotional experience for everyone.

“Men and women both have had positive changes. They’ve cried. We cry a lot here," said Lisa, who also works at Ink180. "But it’s happy tears. Happy tears for the changes that they’re making. For the changes they see on their bodies, for the changes that their life is going to take this turn to remove it or cover it up.”

When Baker started Ink180 in 2011, the original plan was to help ex-gang members remove their tattoos. Baker partnered with Homeland Security and the FBI to bring people in for removal services. When he did more outreach in the state, he discovered gang members were not the only ones with identifying marks. Some victims of sex trafficking are also branded by their traffickers or pimps.

“Its just another way of them keeping or claiming ownership over them and demeaning them to make them to make them feel like they’re worth nothing,” Baker said.

According to the Illinois Attorney General, at least 16 thousand are trafficked every year in Chicago alone. More than half of the people trafficked in the U.S. are children.

“These women have a huge heart to help others, and they never think it’s them that they need to help,” said Cheryl Csiky, who volunteers at Gridlock Ministries, a Schaumburg-based organization that helps rescue sex trafficking victims and supports them as they move on with their lives.

For Baker, removing tattoos from these victims is like removing “an exclamation point on a life that they wished they’d never lived.”