Several years ago when tattoo artist Billy Joe White created tattoo cover ups on a family of women who were former white supremacists, he likely didn’t think his skill in that arena would change the direction of his career.
However, after the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., where a white nationalist from Ohio drove a car into a crowd of protesters, killing one and injuring others, White decided to use his skill set to combat racism he saw on television and in his own town.
The owner of Red Rose Tattoo studio in Zanesville was initially going to offer free cover ups of hate-speech and racist-image tattoos to the first 10 people to contact him, but those 10 spots filled so quickly, White decided to continue offering the transformative service at no charge. A typical tattoo cover up can cost between $300 and $1000, depending on how large the tattoo is and how well it was inked originally.
Through social media, he invited people with tattoos of swastikas, drawings of hooded KKK members and other negative images to “bring me your mistakes.”
“I saw how powerful it was for these people. How do you tell people ‘no’?” he asked. “We all have that past, or that moment that maybe we regret, and we wish we could do something about it now, to move on from those mistakes. Redemption is real.”
For his contributions toward literally removing hate, White was recognized with a cultural awareness award from the Ohio Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Commission at the 35th annual Ohio Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Celebration Jan. 16. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine participated in the celebration at Trinity Episcopal Church in Columbus to honor six Ohio residents and one organization for their efforts to advance nonviolent social change.
White called the recognition “very overwhelming.”
“We wanted to break down barriers and stereotypes that are difficult to work through,” White, 35, said. “It’s a cause we believe strongly in.”
According to White, many of those clients didn’t realize how the hate-filled tattoos affected them emotionally until they were gone.
“They let it all out,” he said. “It’s been pretty amazing to see what people have been through: gang-related symbols, victims of trafficking.”
Since White’s studio began offering free cover ups, he and his staff have covered about 100 tattoos. There is currently a waiting list, and the studio is vetting future cover up clients.
White’s work is the focus of a 2018 documentary short film by Cy Dodson, “Beneath the Ink.” The film received a 2019 Emmy nomination for Outstanding Short Documentary and qualified for a 2019 Academy Award for Short Documentary. When White spoke to the Columbus Jewish News Jan. 29, he had just landed in Utah to attend the Sundance Film Festival in Park City for a screening of the documentary.
Since the release of “Beneath the Ink,” White said he has talked about his studio’s mission with people in the Jewish community and attended a film festival in Pittsburgh not long after the October 2018 Tree of Life Congregation shooting. The documentary has been screened at 20 Jewish film festivals around the world, including one of the largest festivals in Atlanta.
In his nomination for the Ohio cultural awareness award, White was praised for “calling on his community to understand their faults and let them ‘erase the hate’ and move into a more understanding, loving future,” according to a news release.
“Like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., White understands that choosing kindness, forgiveness and light can help heal the broken connections that lead to hate,” the release stated.
Since the Columbus award ceremony, White has been approached by several newspapers and television stations to share his story.
“I just want to use it as a springboard to continue the mission of Dr. King and a lot of people that also have fought the injustices that we still face,” he said.
White wasn’t raised in a religious home but, as an adult, he said he tries to use human principles that come from multiple religions.
“That’s been my guiding force. I just want to be good to humans, and I think that’s the will of any, and probably all gods,” he said. “Just to treat each other well, and be loving and caring to each other.”
White is also working on a global initiative to share the idea with other tattoo artists worldwide, so they also can make a difference with their art. He said his fiancee, two daughters and son are his catalyst for this project.
“I didn’t want them to think their dad was just a guy who made tattoos on people,” he said. “I want them to know I did something that was important.”
To view “Beneath the Ink,” visit beneaththeinkfilm.com.