An American tattoo artist on a mission to cover-up racist inkings for free has told how his work is in such high demand, he is going on tour—and plans to travel to Britain.
Inspired by an encounter with a young man with a violent gang’s initials tattooed across his face, Dave Cutlip, 51, has been transforming everything from swastikas to white supremacist lightning bolts into attractive designs without charge since November 2017.
Initially working with his now ex-wife Beth, 35, who he launched his business, Southside Tattoo, with in June 2011, he said:
“In today’s political climate, with a surge in fascism, sexism and racism around the world, this service is invaluable.”
“People who had these racist and gang tattoos done can see the light and I don’t want them to be saddled with tattoos that constantly remind them of their dark past.”
“I want them to know there is still positivity and light at the end of the tunnel.”
Starting out as an apprentice tattooist in 1992, Dave, who split up with Beth, left the business in November 2018 after their marriage stopped working. He will never forget the first time he saw a gang tattoo.
It was October 2016 and a young man came into his studio with BGF—standing for Black Guerilla Family—a gang originally formed in prison to eliminate racism against black people, but which has since been accused of alienating other ethnic groups—inked on his face.
“They were huge, random letters. I had no idea what they meant and just thought, ‘Why would anyone tattoo their face, is this a new trend?’”
“He came up to me and Beth and explained that they were the initials of a notoriously violent gang, which recruits members in prison.”
“I could see the sadness in his eyes. He said he had left the gang. He had a new baby with his girlfriend and was ready to change his life.”
“In that moment, Beth and I knew what I had to do.”
Sadly, despite going to great lengths to create designs he thought would work, Dave could not cover the tattoo and referred the young man to a removal specialist. But the encounter prompted him to start helping people who wanted to turn their lives around, by covering up similar tattoos for free.
Launching a GoFundMe crowdfunding page in December 2017 called Random Acts of Tattoo, which has so far raised $34,258.00, to help buy extra materials for the work, such as more ink and needles, Dave was soon receiving at least 300 messages a day on his studio’s Facebook page, from people worldwide wanting his help.
Starting in his hometown of Maryland, Dave recalled meeting a member of the notorious Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a white supremacist hate group, saying:
“I knew I had to start small, so I started the cover-ups in my local studio.”
“That was when I met an ex-KKK member for the first time, who came all the way to me from Illinois, around 900 miles away, in about February 2017.”
“I learned so much horrific stuff about the group. He had a lightning bolt tattoo—known as an SS bolt, which is a Neo-Nazi/white supremacist symbol derived from Schutzstaffel, one of Hitler’s paramilitary groups. He also had the numbers 88, which in the alphabet align with HH for Heil Hitler.”
“He wanted to leave the group after being on house arrest for a hate crime—the details of which I never found out. He spent that time at home online and found that his beliefs could be challenged. He soon realized how wrongly he had been living his life.”
After spending more than four hours covering-up the tattoo, which he transformed into a striking pattern, Dave—who says this is the average time it takes to cover up an inking—and the ex-KKK member went out for a meal and discussed the positive ways in which he now wanted to live his life.
Since then, Dave has adapted numerous ill-advised inkings, which have included offensive slogans like ‘White Power,’ into everything from roses to tribal imagery and animals.
And he has recruited like-minded tattoo artists in the US states of Colorado and Texas to his quest to cover-up racist and gang tattoos for free.
“I realized I had to branch out after seeing where people wanting my help were contacting me from. A tattoo artist and tattoo shop owner I know in Colorado, Dave Brown, offered to help out and we created a website together in 2017.”
“Before we knew it we had another couple of artists in Texas willing to help and even one in Greece, for people who wanted help in Europe.”
By combining their efforts, they have managed to transform over 100 tattoos, which has involved around 400 hours of unpaid work.
Still, this has barely touched the surface, judging by the number of desperate people who have contacted Dave, who has decided to buy a van and travel across the US this year—and eventually to the UK—adapting as many offensive inkings as he can.
“The money we raise by crowdfunding is only for equipment, so I won’t be paid and I will use my own money to fund my travel and to sustain myself.”
“Sometimes I finish a free cover-up and think, ‘I could have done another tattoo and actually got paid for it.’ But, in the end, I know it’s worth it when I see people get new jobs or wear shorts or vests in the summer when they previously couldn’t because of their terrible tattoos.”
“My plan is to eventually come to the UK, too.”
“I’m aware of the ‘skinhead movement’ and the type of inkings people may have—like English Defense League (EDL) far-right symbols—which they want to cover up.
“If I can change at least one person’s mind about extremist views, then it will be worth it.”