Oswego tattoo artists helps cover past mistakes
BY ERIKA WURST ewurst@stmedia network.com November 30, 2012 8:36PM
Chis Baker works on covering up a bar code tattoo on the arm of Matt Salis, 27, from Oswego, in his studio in Oswego on Tuesday, November 20, 2012. Salis got the tattoo on a spring break trip not knowing that it is also used in the sex trafficking industr
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Updated: January 3, 2013 6:21AM
When Oswego artist Chris Baker sits down to tattoo, he does more than create beautiful work. He changes lives.
He knows better than anyone else that, while a bad tattoo can be devastating, the wrong tattoo can be deadly. A faded Latin King crown could mean a bullet to the head. Having a pimp’s name tattooed on her arm could land a girl right back in his clutches.
In the last year alone, more than 500 gang or sex trafficking related tattoos have undergone Baker’s reconstruction — and for free. With a little ink and a lot of love, Baker turns the skin etchings from harmful reminders of the past into blooming flowers, towering crosses and promises for a better future.
“This is something I thought would be a nice little ministry to do,” Baker said of INK 180 Ministries, a non-profit organization he began a year ago. “It’s so crazy how fast all of this blew up.”
When he brought his idea to do free cover-up work for former gang members to the attention of local law enforcement agencies, the response was swift. In no time, Baker found himself offering his services to probation offices, police departments and eventually, Chicago’s Department of Homeland Security. It was at this point when he realized how grave the situation was.
“They asked me if the human trafficking department could sit in (on my presentation),” Baker said.
He was confused. “I thought, ‘Why? That doesn’t happen here.’ They said, ‘It does. We’ll show you.’”
The family man was stunned. All across the western suburbs women were being forced into prostitution — bar codes, which makes them pimp property, have been inked onto their necks, backs and arms.
“It’s the most sad, brutal thing I’ve seen in my life,” Baker said of the revelation that this was happening right under his nose. “The more you hear about it, the more you see it, the more disturbing it gets. It happens here, and it’s real.”
At that moment, Baker realized there was no turning back. He realized that the calling he had gotten from God to create his small ministry was more than just an idea, but a mission that would help transform the lives of those in need. “These people have nothing. They could never afford to get their tattoos covered or removed,” he said. “This is just something I had to do.”
But he won’t take credit for the revelation. “Don’t thank me for doing this, thank God,” Baker said. “I’m not this smart of a guy. I just prayed for it. I said, ‘God, what do you want me to do?’ And he knocked me over the head.”
Chris Baker wasn’t always a religious man. Four years ago, if you would have told the heavily-colored artist he’d be tattooing former gang members for free, he would have laughed. He was busying working a full-time gig with a big company, making the big bucks, and living an extravagant lifestyle. Tattooing was just a side job, and not one to pay the bills.
When he was laid off, that changed. Baker began attending church. He began to pray, and he started searching for a higher purpose in life.
“Now, if I have enough money to pay the bills and see a movie once in a while, I’m happy … Life used to be dictated by the stuff we had. We weren’t bad people, but we weren’t doing anything good,” he said.
Today, Baker’s financial bank account is the worst it’s ever been, but his spiritual bank account is overflowing, he said. In one year, Baker spent $12,000 of his own cash on ink and supplies, and gave away more than $50,000 in tattoos. But, “I’m happier than I’ve ever been,” he said.
“At the end of the day, I can say, ‘Today I did something to make someone’s life better’ ... These people have been through the ringer. They’ve been through war and are trying to get their lives together. It’s cool to be part of that path.”
Yorkville Deputy Chief of Police Larry Hilt knows firsthand how transforming Baker’s work can be. A tattoo won’t just fade away, even if your allegiance to a gang has long since disappeared. Because of this, the constant affiliation makes life difficult for those looking to escape the lifestyle.
“When we run into a gang member, our senses are heightened,” Hilt said. “If the tattoo is there, it’s there. We will have them tell us they’re no longer in the gang, but it’s hard to believe.”
Baker’s program gives former gang members a fresh path to walk. Recently, he removed a hand tattoo for a former Latin King from Elgin. The 19-year-old’s dream of joining the Marines was put on hold until he could have the symbol fade away.
The young man began delivering drugs for the gang at age 8, and by 15 had left the gang for good. He wanted nothing more than to join boot camp and get a new lease on life. When he found out about INK 180, he saw his chance.
“It’s a great start for someone who has wanted to get those symbols or markings off them so they can have a better chance at making it,” Hilt said. “I think the work Chris is doing is great.”
Because the business of tattooing is a cash-driven one, it is often consumed with greed, Baker said. Cash-strapped gang members and sex trafficking victims aren’t the ideal clients.
Pastor Geoff Mitchell, of Big Life Church, said Baker looks beyond that fact.
“His passion for hurting people, for trapped people, is just contagious. He’s almost restless to see they get the opportunity to break away from what they had,” Mitchell said. “What Chris does is external, but he wants the change to be internal.”
In doing his work, Baker not only changes the lives of his clients, but opens the eyes of those around him. Baker has been invited to speak about his ministry at churches and conferences across the state, Midwest and world.
“You can’t sit and listen to him talk for even 15 minutes and not be moved,” Mitchell said. “You hear about this girl from Bolingbrook, or Naperville, or a girl found 10 miles from Oswego, and you realize human trafficking is everywhere. I thought we were immune to it, but to be immune to it is to not be informed…
“The first time you hear about it, you can’t go back to being naive.”
Baker will be the first to tell you that evil roams every street, and this is often the toughest part of his work.
With two young daughters of his own, it’s downright painful to listen to the stories some of his clients tell. He has met girls who were sold into prostitution by family members, and spent years being chartered from city to city as property of evil. He has tattooed runaways who were befriended by the wrong man, and forced into a life they’re too young to even understand.
“I see a counselor every month to download some of this stuff,” Baker said. “The sex trafficking stuff makes me sick, and very angry.”
But the benefit of bringing change to a once shattered life far outweighs any downside of the job, he said.
“I’ve had guys bigger than me who were tattooed from head-to-toe look at their cover up work for the first time and tell me what a weight it has lifted off their shoulders ...It’s a huge recovery process, but I’ve seen women come out of sex trafficking and go on to become counselors.”
Baker is convinced God has even bigger plans for him. “My ultimate goal,” he said, “is to create a nationwide network of artists willing to do this work.”