Second chances can be hard to come by, but Chris Baker, 42, a tattoo artist in Oswego, Ill., gives them away for free.
Since 2011, Baker, who’s also a youth pastor, has created more than 500 free tattoos for former gang members and victims of human trafficking eager to remove or cover up the visible evidence of their past. Big city human trafficking networks are often run by gang members, who tattoo their victims with barcodes, pimps’ names or gang symbols to track them and make it almost impossible for them to escape.
“It’s my way of giving back to the community that’s given me so much,” Baker told ABCNews.com, in explaining his service. “I just decided to do something positive, and to show people that people can change.”
Baker founded INK 180, a nonprofit organization that he funds with money he earns from his regular tattooing business, and through donations. The name symbolizes the degree of change he hopes for in the lives of those he tattoos.
Baker has worked with former members of the Latin Kings, Black Disciples and Aryan Nation, explaining that the tattoos are like a rite of passage for initiated gang members.
It was during one of his youth group meetings that Baker realized he wanted to help these people, whose efforts to change and progress were often halted by the markings of their past.
Once a warehouse manager, Baker said that many of his employees had belonged to gangs, and they often compared their tattoos to Baker’s religious ones.
“They would say, ‘I wish I could get rid of my tattoos. I’m tired of getting judged,’” Baker recalled. “And I decided, ‘That’s my calling.’”
For two years, Baker has worked with local, state and federal authorities to offer his services to former gang members who had difficulty finding jobs, or who were living in secrecy from gangs they’d left.
A member of his church who works with the Department of Homeland Security brought Baker’s attention to victims of human trafficking – pointing out that by covering up or removing their tattoos, Baker could make it much harder for their captors find them.
The gang members who come on their own, or the women who have escaped sex trafficking rings and arrive with law enforcement protection, open up to Baker as he listens to them describe what they’ve done and what they want to do.
“These guys will say, ‘Yeah, it hurts,’ but it’s almost like penance for them. It’s representative of the pain they caused others, and they don’t want to cause anymore,” Baker said.
Baker leaves the type of tattoo up to his customers. “No matter the design, I just love being able to take away the visible reminders of their past and give them something beautiful to remind them of their future,” said Baker.
“There was one guy from Kansas City who had gotten out of prison,” Baker recalled. “We did a cover-up of a tattoo for him and found out he was an artist. He’s now working as an artist for a greeting card company.”
The Oswego village board recently approved Baker’s special use permit, and in a few weeks, he will have a more permanent home for INK 180, after previously renting spaces. It’ll be one of the few tattoo shops in the United States with a prayer wall and an information center for other nonprofit ministries in the area.
“People always ask me why I do this for free,” Baker said. “The stories I hear make it worth it.”