Portsmouth tattoo parlor offers free cover-ups for gang, hate-group related ink

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PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — A local tattoo parlor is taking steps to take back their community.

Greg’s Tattoos, located in Portsmouth, is offering free coverups this holiday season for people who no longer want their ink because of its meaning. Anyone with gang-related, hate group-related, trafficking-related, or racially offensive tattoos are invited to come in to have the mark modified, with zero judgment.

10 On Your Side sat down with the man who’s spearheading the effort, a tattoo artist named Joe. He was formerly incarcerated for nearly two decades. Before he was even released, he knew he could provide a service that would give back to the community.

“You know part of your job as a tattoo artist in prison — you tattoo gang members,” said Joe. “Tattooing all types of stuff and after a while, when I had kind of turned my life around, I felt bad about a lot of that stuff and so I had started to tattoo over those tattoos for free.”

“They would come to me with a tattoo if they needed to cover it up. I would do the gang tattoos, the hate tattoos, white supremacy stuff, and I would cover it or camouflage it or change it at no cost. So if people wanted to drop out of the gang, they could. If they were getting ready to go home and didn’t want to have like something crazy on them that would prevent him from getting a job – we would take care of it.”

When Joe got out, he wanted to continue helping people but needed to find work first.

“I went pretty much door to door to every tattoo shop in the area. Could not get work, anywhere. Either they wanted to have an art degree, or it was a shady spot,” explained Joe. “I keep a business card from everyone I asked hanging on the wall at my place.”

After going to and being denied by just over 30 parlors in Hampton Roads, he landed a job at Greg’s.

It was after he started working with Greg that Joe realized he could continue helping others correct past choices so they wouldn’t have to spend their futures paying for it.

“In all the years I was in prison, and I was at a supermax prison for 18 years, the ‘worst of the worst,’ I maybe can count on both my hands the number of truly ‘bad’ people. Most people that are in there are young and immature or mentally ill or weren’t trained socially. They weren’t given moral codes and foundations. They feel marginalized and not a part of something. Then they come back to society with that stigma and they even feel more not a part of something.”

He says that stigma of being a former gang member or a reformed criminal can be something that keeps you from finding legal employment.

“People always look at you when they see your tattoos. They say ‘Well, he’s been to prison’ or ‘He’s a felon’ and then automatically puts you on a different tier than everybody else. You’re either dangerous and they should be afraid of you. You’re dishonest and they shouldn’t trust you. You’re violent or you’re sneaky. That’s a stigma.”

After chatting it over with Greg a couple of times, the business agreed to take on the mission together.

“We’re like one big family,” said Wendi Johnson, who also works at Greg’s. “This is family.”

“We understand that people change,” reads one of the business’ Instagram posts. “We believe that bad decisions and mistakes should not be the end of the road if people are willing to make the effort to join our community and society in a positive way regardless of their past.”

The parlor’s already received several calls.

“I’ve gotten a call from a Navy guy that’s trying to go in the Navy that has a middle finger that he wants to be made into a peace sign. I’ve gotten a call from two people with the confederate flag. One of them had got it for hateful reasons and wants to cover it up, the other one had got it for heritage reasons and wants to modify it in a way that’s going to make it non-offensive or non-oppressive to people.”

If you’d like to donate to the cause, the parlor has opened their CashApp ($TattooAir) for people looking to help out.

As of Friday, they are covering all costs out of pocket.

Qualifications for cover-ups:

  • If you have a tattoo that is gang-related that could possibly be dangerous for you to wear, or prevents you from finding employment or moving on with your life, it could qualify.
  • If you have a hate group symbol, or other racially offensive tattoos, it could qualify.
  • If you have some other tattoo that could cause physical or emotional harm to you or the community it could qualify.
  • If you have been a victim of trafficking and have identifying tattoos it could qualify.

You can schedule your consultation by clicking here.

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