Baltimore Tattoo Shop Helps Ex-Supremacists Have a Life After Hate
Dave Cutlip tattooing roses on Shane Johnson's neck, to cover up his white nationalists' tattoos.
Meet Shane Johnson.
The 26-year-old, who was born into the Ku-Klux-Klan decided to take on a different path after the birth of his son and sought a tattoo shop that would conceal his racists' upbringing with the KKK’s. Johnson, who now promotesLife After Hate to help others who are going through the same transition as he did, talked about how he turned his life around and how a tattoo shop in Baltimore helped him achieve his goal.
“My father, uncles, aunts etc. All were members. It was normal to me growing up to attend cross lightings and other Klan gatherings. I had to do a lot of Bible study, constantly,” Johnson said. “It was imperative that I learned, and became fluent with a belief system known as ‘Christian Identity.’ When I became a teenager, we began hanging more with neo-nazi groups, attending their events, demonstrations, and vice versa.”
According to Johnson, he held firm beliefs to the Christian Identity, although most skinheads were pagans or atheist. He earned the nickname “Punchy” due to his constant fights with fellow skinheads who teased his beliefs, worshipping a “Jew God.”
However, through that, Johnson rose through the ranks, he said. He even recruited and taught others about the ideology of his Klan and himself believed in.
“We believed we were the superior race, but in reality, we were just a bunch of poor, uneducated trailer trash,” Johnson said. “Who were just pushing the blame of us being failures onto others.”
Shane with his wife Tiffany.
Over the years, as he got older, he met his now-wife, Tiffany, and he kept his Klan life separated from his love life, Johnson said. Although, his wife did not interfere with his “business,” she pointed out a few things that eventually stuck with him.
“She was planting a seed and watering it on and off. My changing pretty much started when my dad died. As bad as it may sound, but without him there, I had a little more room to breathe,” Johnson said. “But, after his death, I started drinking heavily. One night we had a small gathering, and we were all pretty drunk. We ended up going to a park that had a concert going on, and started attacking people who were non-white. We were arrested. I sobered up in jail, and realized that for some reason my main concern wasn’t how much time I was going to get, but rather I was thinking about the people I hurt mostly. Innocent people, attacked, because of our hate. I started to think, all this leads to is death, or prison.”
Johnson said his beliefs started to crumble and he asked himself what kind of God their worship if they either end up dead or in prison. It didn’t make sense to him.
Johnson with his past tattoos still decorating his upper body.
When his wife asked him if he could kill an innocent black child, the right answer was “no,” although back then he answered “yes.” Eight months of house arrest, however, made him think about his path in life, and that he actually has empathy for the people he was supposed to hate. For the first time, he allowed himself to study other beliefs and ideologies, Johnson said. Left leanings he would have never been exposed to.
Everyone deserves a second chance in life.
Even ex-white supremacists. Why not help them achieve this goal?
“Southside Tattoos” in Brooklyn Park, Baltimore does exactly that. OwnerDave Cutlip, who has been tattooing for 26+ years, offers to cover up extreme tattoos on ex-white supremacist and ex-gang members, for free. Like those of Shane.
In January 2017, the life of Dave Cutlip and “Southside Tattoos” changed drastically.
It all started when a guy with “white nationalist” face tattoos came into the shop to have it covered up. But unable to help him, Cutlip sent him to get laser tattoo removal instead.
This, however, started the idea to actually make this a charity and start a nonprofit organization, called“Redemption INK,” to help people like Shane Johnson move on from their racist past - but can’t, because of the necessary funds.
“My wife [Elizabeth] kinda looked at me,” Cutlip said. “And she was like ‘You know you can help people.’ “
At first, Cutlip thought he would only be helping the Baltimore community, but instead, it went viral. And now he receives requests globally. Which is a big demand for Cutlip and his shop, since he’s unable to be at all places at the same time.
“It snowballed from there. I was completely taken back by so many people that needed that kind of work done and couldn’t afford it,” Cutlip said. “I’m a firm believer that tattoo artists should get what they’re worth and by that being said, sometimes people can’t afford tattoos. They are a luxury. People don’t think all the time and they get tattoos. And these people just needed help and I figured - why not? I got a good crew here. Someone gotta do it.”
With help of his right hand, Dave Ente, the two advocates try to spread the mission of their charity work across the globe. And to have other tattoo artist jump on the bandwagon, so the tattoo community grows tighter and becomes stronger to help people get another chance in life, instead of denying the service without knowing their story.
“Southside Tattoos” have been around for five years and is busier than ever. Even more so, due to the announcement of the charity campaign, the Cutlip’s are doing.
“I’ve got people come in here, that wanna get tattooed by us, just because of what we’re doing,” Cutlip said. “That’s kinda what keeps me going. The calls that I get. And I get calls all the time, and little notes from people from all over the country, the world. It’s really cool, actually.”
The “all-around guy,” as Cutlip calls himself when it comes to tattooing, knows the stigma that is related to being heavily tattooed.
“26 years ago I made the conscious decision to be tattooed. And back then people looked at us like we were, weird freaks, whatever you wanna say,” Cutlip said. “I’m used to that. And now it’s more mainstream. So people with those kinds of tattoos, they’re being called out, and some of them are even being targeted so to speak. And they need help.”
An expert in cover-ups, the most popular requests he receives besides decorating a Swastika with flowers so it’s unrecognizable, is “American Traditional,” and “Blackwork,” he said.
Cutlips’ mission is to eventually have someone trustworthy takeover unless hate groups and “white nationalism” will eventually stop.
“I figured, I tattoo until I can’t tattoo anymore. And that’s my end goal. Hopefully, I would love to possibly turn this over to somebody else to continue,” Cutlip said. “The sad thing is, it’s never gonna end. And I come to terms with that. So why not? - Again somebody has to do it.”
There’s a certain criteria, Cutlip and him follow, Ente said. Like a Confederate flag, for instance, wouldn’t be looked at as a “white supremacist expression,” unless there are other hateful tattoos incorporated. Although there is a lot of controversy about this particular topic. Also, what matters is if the tattoo can actually be covered or if it needs to be lasered off. However, Cutlip does make exceptions if someone is in immediate danger.
“One guy, in particular, he was from the Dominican Republic, I think. And his problem was MS-13,” Cutlip said. “He had a tattoo, it wasn’t a gang tattoo but when he went home, people told him that ‘you need to get that covered up, or we gonna hurt you.’So I helped him too.”
Being educated about gang tattoos, as well as white supremacists tattoos, in order to distinguish the criteria is essential for Cutlip and Ente to be able to serve their clients.
“He wasn’t in the gang,” Ente said. “But what he got, happened to be something that the gang considered significant and they threaten his wife if he didn’t get it removed. So we looked at it, and it’s dangerous for him, so we said ‘OK this one fits the criteria then.’ “
According to Ente, their charity campaign already inspired six other tattoo shops in the states, and one in Greece to work with Cutlip and Ente.
“We continuously trying to add new volunteers to the project, because there are people in Oregon that I can’t help. There are people all over the country and all over the world sending us requests, but it’s not realistic for them to fly across the country or across the world to come to our shop for a free cover-up,” Ente said. “One angle would be to throw this to the point where it’s organically becoming a trend amongst tattooers. Other tattooers gonna see this and possibly get inspired to volunteer as well.”
Although not everyone at “Southside Tattoos” offers the service that Cutlip does, the crew still supports the charity and helps Dave however they can.
“I can’t make somebody volunteer. Neither do I want to force somebody to do something they don’t want to do,” Cutlip said. “Because they’re sitting there taking care of the shop, that allows me to actually do the tattoo. Some of these tattoos took me multiple hours to cover up.”
Cutlip has done about 48 cover-ups of the 63 total cover-ups between “Southside Tattoos” and its sister-shops. And the list of requests is growing.
With theirGoFundMe page, Cutlip and Ente try to raise enough money so they can get a laser that breaks down the ink inside the skin, without leaving scars or causing too much damage to the skin. That way they can offer both, laser tattoo removal and cover-ups at the same spot.
“It’s hard finding people that are doing charity work with the lasers, “ Ente said. “Because they just cost so much. The good ones that can take every color off, full retail run about a $100 000.”
However, their GoFundMe page seems to be growing closer to their end goal of $60,000.
Johnson was so impressed by Cutlip's campaign, thatGoFundMe Studios, a video production studio dedicated to sharing the extraordinary stories that emerge through GoFundMe, followed Johnson throughout his life-changing journey.
After discussing his beliefs with his wife, Johnson decided to leave the white power movement, he said. However, as long as he was under house arrest he was still affiliating with the hate group.
The day Johnson got released from house arrest, his wife and him left and fled to Evansville and connected with some guys, Johnson met online.
“They took us in, got me a real job, and began trying to help me start a normal life. I was in a constant battle in my own head, fighting myself,” Johnson said. “Thinking maybe the Klan was right, and now here I am sinning, betraying God. An ongoing internal battle.”
In a moment of pride, as Johnson said, he went back to get his things. To his surprise some of the Klan members were already waiting for him, demanding to know what has happened to him. In confidence, he told them off, that he left the Klan for good.
“It was tense, but they left. I gathered my things and stopped at a gas station on my way out. That is when they attacked me. It was ambush style, no honor in their actions at all. I fought back, but there was no point,” Johnson said. “I was hospitalized for two weeks due to the beating. But, I want to make this clear, it is actually rare for that to happen to people who drop out. This is real life, not a ‘Sons of Anarchy’ episode. There is no hunting down people who drop out, no burning off tattoos, that’s all fairy tales to give them legitimacy. In my case, it was family, right around the time my dad died. It was a spit in their face. It was personal.”
After the hospital stay, Johnson started to learn more about other cultures and started to attend protests against police brutality, as well Bernie Sanders events. But his main issue wasn’t that he once was a member of the KKK’s. His problem was the white nationalists' tattoos decorating his body, giving away his past and his connection he once valued to the Klan.
Johnsons' chest piece.
“The front of my neck read ‘14 SS 88,’ my arms, chest, everything. My once most praised possessions were now the biggest burden ever. Jobs would not hire me. No work history, education, criminal record, plus covered in white power ink,” Johnson said. “People would see me and be offended, and that hurt me the most. I started wearing turtlenecks 24/7, even in the summer. I was miserable. I felt the urge to speak to others, hoping maybe sharing my experiences would expose the truth about the white power movement, or maybe even help someone. I was asked to do an interview in Fort Wayne, I agreed and have been continuing to speak to others as much as possible. It’s my dream to travel speaking to kids and others exposing the white power movement.”
Johnson heard of “Southside Tattoos” and Cutlip's charity campaign, and supported them for their efforts and generosity, he said. But he was unable to afford to travel to Baltimore or cover them up where he lives.
“Out of nowhere, one day I was contacted by GoFundMe with an extremely generous, and loving offer to fly me to Baltimore for Dave to cover my neck tattoo. I, of course, accepted the offer, our first attempt was cut short due to my son deciding it was time [and] my wife went into labor,” Johnson said. “GoFundMe came back and flew me to Baltimore to meet Dave. I met him, and we became friends instantly, he is an amazing, caring, generous man. He is extremely talented, and covered my neck with roses, leading to my son’s name. I was completely blown away when I’ve seen the finished product. My life changed instantly. I meet someone now and do not have to explain my tattoos. People treat me in a far more accepting way, and I’m no longer offending people. I can finally be myself.”
However, Johnson still has a long way to go, his entire upper body to be exact. So Johnson is planning on going back to “Southside Tattoos” eventually to cover up the rest.
“He made me feel very welcomed, never judged, and frankly, he lays down some badass work,” Johnson said. “My designs are basically anything positive, the exact opposite of this trash that’s on me.”
Since his family is still members of the Klan, Johnson and his wife don’t have any contact with them, he said. He is looking into the future with a positive point of view and carries a new winning attitude to build something strong and help others.
“I have more confidence now, and am more comfortable in my body, which did indeed lead to me killing a job interview and starting a new career as an electrician, which is way better for my family,” Johnson said. “I am going to continue working, and continue to use every opportunity I can to reach out to others and use my experiences to hopefully help someone, and to expose the truly hateful and ignorance of the white power movement.”