Former extremists get opportunities for a fresh start through tattoo removal programs

Sign outside Removery Nashville. Removery uses laser technology to remove unwanted tattoos. (Photo: Matt Bastin)
Sign outside Removery Nashville. Removery uses laser technology to remove unwanted tattoos. (Photo: Matt Bastin)

There are always people  trying to leave hate  groups in hopes of living a better life after a destructive past. The process of exiting brings all sorts of complications as people come to terms with the magnitude of their hate-filled beliefs and make the choice to leave behind the friends and the groups that have given them a sense of belonging.

There are mountains of research on the subject of how people are recruited into hate-groups, but little on what people can do when they decide to leave one of those groups. 

Christian Picciolini knows this process all too well. Picciolini is one of the leading voices and experts on the subject of counter-extremism and prevention. He gained his expertise after spending years in the white-supremacist skinhead movement and his subsequent exit. For almost 20 years now, he’s dedicated himself to helping others leave hate groups.  

A sign at Tempest Tattoo in Dickson, Tenn. (Photo: Matt Bastin)
A sign at Tempest Tattoo in Dickson, Tenn. (Photo: Matt Bastin)

Like many others, Picciolini found it hard to leave his past behind him when he had multiple tattoos that served as constant reminders of harmful ideals that had played a major role in his life for years. 

I got them when I was younger because I wanted to so very strongly portray who I thought I was, but when I figured that wasn’t who I was and it wasn’t something I wanted to be a part of anymore, it felt like a ton of bricks that I was carrying around 24 hours, seven days a week,” said Picciolini. “They were visible, and they were visible on purpose because when I got them they were meant to intimidate and scare people.” 

“But when I decided to disengage from that movement and started to question what I was a part of and how I treated people…it became a burden, it became something I had to cover up all the time. Even 20 years later, still having remnants of those tattoos… it’s hard for people not to associate what they see on your body with who you are now,” he said.

According to a March report by The Southern Poverty Law Center, there are an estimated 940 active hate groups in the United States. This number has increased by a staggering 55% since 2017 in a pattern that predicts continued growth for the future. 

In the SPLC’s “Hate Map”, a map that shows the general locations of hate groups across the nation, Tennessee ties with Georgia for the fourth largest number of hate groups in the nation with both states hovering around 38 active groups at any given time

Removery has 35 separate locations across 31 cities throughout the United States, one of which is located just off Elliston Place in Nashville. Removery offers free tattoo removals for former hate group members through their INK-nitiative program.

The three states with the highest numbers are California with 88 groups, Florida with 67, and Texas with 63 active groups. However, as high as these numbers are, they don’t actually account for every individual who harbors racist, Anti-Semitic, or hateful beliefs and not every single person who holds those beliefs belong to a named or organized hate group.  

Picciolini created Free Radicals Project, a disengagement platform that aids individuals, families, and communities in exiting radicalization.  Picciolini has also recently started to work with Removery, a company that specializes in tattoo removal. 

Removery has 35 separate locations across 31 cities throughout the United States, one of which is located just off Elliston Place in Nashville. Removery offers free tattoo removals for former hate group members through their INK-nitiative program. INK-nitiative offers their free services not only to those with hateful or racist tattoos but also to former gang members, human trafficking and domestic abuse survivors, and those who are previously or currently incarcerated. 

Emma Shaybani, the Director of Marketing for Removery, describes INK-nitiative as a way to give back to local communities. 

“It helps people to become reintegrated into their community, be more productive, and be accepted into the community. It allows them to help other people to not make the same mistakes as them – which helps to break the cycle. INK-nitiative helps people to reflect more on the beliefs that they have today as opposed to the beliefs that they used to hold.” 

To be accepted into the INK-nitiative, one must fill out an application, have an advocate provide a recommendation and go through an interview with a representative of Removery. Once accepted into the program,  every removal appointment is free of charge. Typically, full tattoo removal requires five-10 appointments.

Sign-in station at Tempest Tattoo Studio in Dickson, Tenn. Tempest is one local studio that provides tattoo coverups. (Photo: Matt Bastin)
Sign-in station at Tempest Tattoo Studio in Dickson, Tenn. Tempest is one local studio that provides tattoo coverups. (Photo: Matt Bastin)

But it isn’t just Removery that offers free removals on hate tattoos. Some local tattoo artists have put out calls that they will cover up existing hate tattoos, free of charge. The only condition? Just tell them your story, and why you’ve decided to take the major step in getting your hate tattoo covered up. Some artists may also ask for a small donation to a cause that fights against hate and racism. One local artist, who asked to remain anonymous, spoke about his reasons for offering this oftentimes life-changing service. 

“I mean, everybody deserves a second chance. I know others may disagree, but I believe some who had to serve time might not have had a choice in the matter of getting one of these tattoos,” said the man. “The only answer is love and forgiveness. In a human way, I feel like hate only breeds more hate, and if somebody is willing to change their outward appearance to match their inside then I’m all for it.” 

Picciolini echoes those words with his own experiences: 

“People say ‘well, you should be reminded of you were.’ There is nothing inside of me that doesn’t remind me, every day, of who I was,” he said. “I’ll never forget the pain I caused people. That’s something I’ve been dealing with for over 20 years while trying to help other people to navigate through that same process.

“We need to learn to address the damage that we’ve caused instead of disengaging from it and running as fast as we can. It’s our responsibility, having created that harm, that we repair it.”