Tattoo artists, laser removal specialists, and anti-hate speech advocates across the country have seen a spike in racist and Confederate tattoo cover-ups and removals in recent months.
Billy White has seen a noticeable increase in the number of people walking into his tattoo shop and requesting cover-ups of their racist tattoos in the past few months. White, who specializes in this kind of work, believes the current socio-political climate was the final push for these individuals to erase the hateful imagery they once proudly displayed across their bodies. While he is used to clients wanting to cover-up swastikas and other iconography associated with Aryan beliefs, recently he's seen a spike in requests concerning the Confederate flag—reflective of the Black Lives Matter movement prompting the removal of monuments to Confederate-era leaders across the nation.
"A lot of these people have walked away from this ideology many years ago," White told VICE News. "And I think, with the climate of society, it's just kind of lit the fire under their butts a little bit for them to really want to make that jump." He revealed that he has seen a 20% spike in racist tattoo cover-ups at his shop, Red Rose Tattoo in Zanesville, Ohio, over the course of the past few months. "We're seeing an uptick in people who have Confederate flag tattoos and have really decided that the verdict is out and it's really time to get those things off of them," he explained.
"Your Confederate-flag guys, a lot of times they've never really aligned with any kind of hatred or bigotry. It was just kind of a symbol of being a redneck and a good ol' boy, especially where I'm at," White added. "We have a lot of that ideology: the country boy mentality. I've noticed a lot of those dudes who got them when they were 16, 17, 18, who are now in their 30s and have decided that's not who they are." This rings true for Bryan Nicosia, who joined the Aryan Brotherhood while serving time at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility.
During his time with the Brotherhood, Nicosia received two tattoos marking his ascension through its ranks: an Iron Cross with two lightning bolts on his right forearm and the letters A and B, trailed by five swastikas, on his left shoulder. He explained that he did what he had to do to stay alive behind bars. "Going to prison, I don't care who you are, where you're from, what culture you are, you are going to get in where you fit in," he said. "If not, you're going to be eaten alive."
However, upon his release in 2018, Nicosia no longer wanted to be a member of the group. He completely dissociated from the Brotherhood and decided to get all reminders of his time with the group off his body. "When I show up at my friend’s place during a cookout, who wants to see that?" said the 37-year-old steel mill worker from Steubenville, Ohio. "When their kids want to play basketball with me or when they want to go to the pool, they'll ask me, 'Oh, what does this mean? What does that mean?' It's an eye-opening experience when you have kids ask you that. It's a real awakening."
Although he wanted to get rid of the tattoos as soon as he was released, trying to get back on his feet after prison kept him from prioritizing this big step. However, the ongoing protests over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless other Black and brown Americans, prompted Nicosia to finally get it done. He reached out to White regarding the cover-ups and had his first session earlier this month. Today I was so very blessed, to meet a great man and his team of artists at Red Rose Tattoo. Today was a big step in my life. Moving forward, and away from the life I lived in the past, Nicosia wrote on Facebook.
Being able to cover up these gang tattoos. I set a goal almost 2 years ago, to get these very hateful tattoos covered. Once I reached out to Billy and Red Rose he jumped on it. So today was the first session. I am so excited to see the work I am getting done in the future Thank you so much, my friend. You are a true artist in your work and your community, he added. "Today, I'm not that man. I work hard. I have a beautiful fiancee. I love my community. I try to give back. I try to do the right thing," he said. "I feel blessed, I feel hopeful. My fiance was in tears when I was getting covered up because she knows how much it means to me. It's a very emotional experience. It feels like a transformation."
Like White, laser removal specialists and anti-hate speech advocates across the country reveal that they've received a similar flood of requests for alterations on their tattoos. Corey Fleischer, who runs Erasing Hate—a social media brand dedicated to exposing and destroying hate speech and racism in all forms—said that he's noticed a significant jump in people asking about tattoo removals and cover-ups since the BLM protests began. "In the last 35 days, there's been an extraordinary amount of Confederate flags being removed. It's like the bridge broke," he said.
While he doesn’t do the cover-ups or removals himself, he uses his platform to connect people looking for such cover-ups with capable artists who support the movement and are willing to do the work pro bono. Fleischer is currently trying to schedule over 100 new requests for racist tattoo removals. "All of a sudden, we have all these people that were living with this [symbol], and now because of social media and the news and the movement, it's brought it to a point where now it’s something very shameful," he said. "Everybody makes mistakes. I'm a firm believer that people grow. Just because one day you were so narrow-minded that you thought a certain way doesn't mean that you can’t grow and realize what you did was wrong."