Dave Cutlip says by removing hate tattoos — no questions asked — he’s giving people another chance, writes Justin Moyer.

Randy Stiles learned the hard way: having a Confederate flag tattoo that reads "Southern Pride" with a noose hanging off it isn't a path to success.

"A lot of public ridicule came from it," Stiles, 25, said this month as he waited to get the flag on his right forearm removed. "I've got to get it gone."

Eliminating a tattoo like this takes hours under the needle and usually costs as much as US$500 ($693). But Southside Tattoo in Brooklyn Park, Maryland, is removing the hate for nothing, covering up racist and gang-related tattoos as part of its mission.

A no-cost coverup fits right into Stiles' budget. Though he got the tattoo at 18 - when he was "young and dumb", he said - the father of three now hopes to move into management at the trucking company where he works and worries the tattoo could hold him back.

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He said he was not a racist but the tattoo made him look like one.

"It's not something I would wish on anyone," said Stiles, of Baltimore. "A racist [or] gang tattoo puts a target on you."

Dave Cutlip, who runs Southside, said he and his wife developed the idea of free coverups in January after a man came into his tattoo parlour hoping to get a gang tattoo removed from his face. "I could see the hurt in his eyes," Cutlip said.

Cutlip, 49, couldn't help the man, it turned out, because the tattoo was too prominent. Might he be able to help someone else? He and his wife turned to Facebook, offering free coverups for racist or gang tattoos with "no questions asked".

"Sometimes people make bad choices, and sometimes people change," the post reads. "We believe that there is enough hate in this world and we want to make a difference."

The post was so widely shared that Cutlip turned off Facebook notifications on his phone. He books the free coverup appointments on Tuesdays and has worked with seven clients so far.

The post led to a crowdfunding effort for the Random Acts of Tattoo Project, which Cutlip created with his wife. Cutlip doesn't take any of the money, but plans to direct it to tattoo artists in other parts of the United States who can't work free and to those trained in laser tattoo removal.

In prison and on the street, he says, some people are forced into hate groups and gangs to avoid becoming victims themselves. But later in life, a tattoo memorialising that hatred and violence works against them.

"Once you do something like that, you're always going to be a victim. If I can help that person, that's my ultimate goal."

The desire to cover hateful or violent tattoos isn't new. One programme that removed gang members' tattoos began in Virginia in 2007. In 2010, a judge in Florida ordered a neo-Nazi's tattoos to be covered with makeup during his trial; the Southern Poverty Law Centre funded the removal of a skinhead's tattoos the following year.

Randy Stiles chose an eagle to cover his Confederate flag tattoo, which he said he got when he was
Randy Stiles chose an eagle to cover his Confederate flag tattoo, which he said he got when he was "young and dumb". Photo / Washington Post

In this corner of Anne Arundel County, about 2km south of Baltimore, where Southside sits in a strip mall, its Facebook post brought diverse queries. Cutlip was asked about covering up an iron cross and a "Dead Man Incorporated" tattoo from a notorious white prison gang, among other pleas for help.

The challenge wasn't confronting hateful ideology but figuring out ways to erase it. Examining a photo of a swastika tattoo a woman wanted removed from her lower back - she said it cost her young son a spot in a playgroup - Cutlip begrudgingly admired its dark colour and clean lines. "I hate to say it," he said. "This is a great tattoo."

He decided that the Random Acts of Tattoo Project would pay for laser removal elsewhere.

To cover up his Confederate flag, Stiles, who has about a dozen tattoos, settled on a replacement he deemed patriotic: an eagle. The coverup involved two hours-long sessions, with Cutlip's tattoo gun humming as it injected black and brown ink under Stiles' skin, the artist periodically wiping the blood away.

Casey Schaffer showed up at the shop with the word "white" on one forearm and "power" on the other. The 29-year-old said the tattoos were a result of a one-year prison stint at Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown for assault.

Schaffer said he fell in with gangs in a prison environment where "everybody sticks to their own kind".

"I kind of did it to try to get in and prove myself to those guys," he said. "They kind of took me in, taking care of me. I thought of it as paying it back to them."

Schaffer's out of jail now and looking for work. He said he thinks construction would be a good fit and is also interested in nursing, but he said his criminal record and tattoos might create obstacles.

Working with Cutlip, Schaffer decided to cover up the word "white" with a heart and roses drawn by his girlfriend. "Power" could stand on its own, he said, but he decided to cover it with a hawk.

"I think it looks pretty badass," he said. "It works for me."

Cutlip, who's been tattooing for 25 years, said he's seen plenty of people make mistakes with ink, even involving more mundane designs. Decades later, a customer might not appreciate, say, a tattoo of a dolphin or a college beau's name.

He can't fix every bad tattoo, but he can fix some of the really bad ones.

"I take each customer as they come," he said. "I want them to feel that they have a say in this."