Southside Tattoo sits off of a commercial strip on the outskirts of Baltimore, alongside a Pizza Hut, a nail salon, and a smoke shop. The store is nearly indistinguishable from the rest of its beige-colored neighbors, save for the fang-bearing tiger and long-taloned eagle painted on the entrance.
One brisk morning last fall, a 28-year-old named Greg McKeever stood in the middle of the shop and peeled off his tank top so that Southside's owner Dave Cutlip could inspect the palm-sized swastika inked on his shoulder.
"As much as I gotta keep taking my clothes off, someone better start breaking out ones," McKeever quipped, his basketball shorts sagging just below his hips. His dad, a broad-shouldered firefighter, watched him silently from the couch, sipping a Red Bull.
Father and son had woken up early that morning and driven nearly 300 miles from Dover, Pennsylvania, to meet with Cutlip. It has been 11 years since the hazy, drug-fueled night when McKeever hunkered down in his friend's freezing basement and inked the hate symbol onto his skin. Today, he's having it covered up with a new tattoo. He wanted to get a pocket watch, to symbolize time and change, but the shape wouldn't quite fit over the edges of the swastika. He settled on a pair of speakers instead, because he has a thing for car stereos.
"This is going to be boring as fuck," Cutlip warned me several times, as he scrolled through images of speakers on Google Images. He still seems a little baffled by all the interest in his store.
Once a week, Southside offers free cover-ups for racist, bigoted, and gang-related tattoos through its non-profit, Redemption Ink. Tattoo cover-up can be expensive (McKeever was quoted between $800 and $1,500 for his), making the shop's pro bono operation a highly coveted service. There's a year-plus wait list, and a thick stack of requests sits at the shop's front desk.
Cutlip flipped on some music and settled down at his desk to draw the tattoo design. For a while, the only sounds in the shop were pencil scratching, the soft rustle of sketch paper, and the Steve Miller Band.
"We'll have wires coming out, and we'll have some color ... we can use shadows," Cutlip told McKeever. "I think this will work, and it'll look cool, you know, like the kinda shit you're into."
He took a sip from his Mountain Dew, sharpened a pencil, and nudged his black square-shaped glasses up the bridge of his nose. Cutlip's entire arm is covered in twisted black ink lines, and a sign above his desk warns criminals to beware of him. Gangs want to get back at him for removing their symbols from former members.
Not everyone makes the cut for Redemption Ink: Cutlip is quick to reject would-be clients who don't seem committed to moving forward with their lives.
"I had a guy come in here, he was a skinhead, and he definitely wasn't finished," Cutlip recalled. "He had fresh tattoos, and not just fresh tattoos, but fresh swastikas, fresh SS's, stuff like that. He just wanted to hide. I'm not here to help you hide."
The two men headed to the back room, where McKeever settled into a chair and Cutlip snapped on a pair of black gloves. "If I do some nice blues here, you won't see it. Once I start shading, it's gonna make it go away," Cutlip said, as he wiped the swastika with green-tinted alcohol, filling the room with a strong, minty odor.
Cutlip dipped the needle into a small tube of black ink and went to work. Little drops of blood bubbled to the surface of McKeever's skin, and when the tip hit tender points, like the shoulder blade, he winced, balled his hands into fists, and let out quiet groans.
"I'm sorry, man," Cutlip said. "I've got creams, hold on." He unscrewed a jar and tenderly dabbed some ointment onto the raw area.
McKeever said that he was sitting through the hours of pain for his fiancée and his daughter, both of whom are multiracial. "It's time to get rid of it," he said. "I mainly wanted to get it done before my daughter got big enough to start asking questions, and I'd have to go down that road. I didn't want to do that to my kids. The world is bad enough now."
McKeever's teenage years were a mix of drugs, tinkering with cars, and getting into trouble. The swastika wasn't directed against any particular race or religion, he said, just a stupid idea that he and his tattoo artist friend cooked up when they were drunk and high one night.
"When I look at myself when I was younger, I should have kicked my own ass," he said. "It was the people I was hanging around with at the time. Trying to fit in with all the kids. Racist comments were made all the time. At the time you just thought it was funny."
A lot of people come to Cutlip with swastikas. He's also covered up a confederate flag with a noose, "shitty pictures of Hitler," and Hello Kitty tattoos with racist symbols woven in. He's even had a former Klansman come in who had finished serving house arrest for committing a hate crime.
"He was raised in the Klan," Cutlip said. "He wasn't allowed to watch TV—he was allowed to read his Bible and go to Klan meetings. Growing up, he was told white people are the good guys, and everybody else were the bad guys."
"It took him being on house arrest and using the Internet for him to actually see how the world really is," he continued. "We took him to his first really nice restaurant. I actually kinda feel like I made a friend out of him."
When Cutlip's wife Beth had walked in at the beginning of the session, Cutlip promptly laid his needle down, got up, and gave her a kiss. She had dark auburn hair, and red and green flower tattoos peeked out from beneath her hoodie sleeves. The pair met almost six years ago, and married three weeks into their courtship ("We didn't waste any friggin' time," Beth said). She purchased the tattoo shop for him as a wedding present.
"I just bought the whole thing and didn't tell him. We pulled up here and he was like, 'What the fuck are we doing in this shithole,' because it was horrible when we got here," she said. "I was like: 'I got this for you. Happy wedding.'"
Beth helped Dave come up with the idea to start Redemption Ink, and she talks about their clients with the same empathy that her husband does. "A lot of the people that we help, they weren't brought up being racists. A lot of times they hooked up with the wrong people at the wrong time, especially during those teenage years," she said. "Nine times out of 10, they don't understand why they're even hating another group."
After about an hour, you can't really see McKeever's old tattoo anymore. It's just a jumble of lines that are slowly shaping into a pair of speakers. Cutlip won't be able to finish the entire cover-up that day, which means there will need to be another drive from Dover to Baltimore sometime soon. McKeever doesn't seem too bothered, though. His fiancée is going to be really happy, he said, even though she was kind of mad that he missed a day of work.
As Cutlip pushed his glasses back up his nose and diligently inked over the small traces left of the swastika's jagged edges, I asked him the question that had been on my mind all morning. How can he really be so sure that his clients have reformed?
"One thing you're taught when you're tattooing is how to read people. And I'm really good at it," he said, pausing the needle so that McKeever could leave the room to grab a tissue for his runny nose. Cutlip gestured a gloved finger in his direction.
"He seems like a nice enough guy. He's had some issues. That doesn't necessarily make him a bad guy."
He looked me square in the eye. "Do you think he's a bad guy?"
No, I said, truthfully, I don't.
"I see the good in a lot of people," he said, back to work on McKeever's shoulder. "I believe that people can change."