OSWEGO, Ill. (Christian Examiner) – When he gave up his former life, he meant it, said Chris Baker. He told God he would do whatever God asked of him, and when he was obedient, God blessed him, Baker said, "beyond all measure."
Baker was a well-paid warehouse supervisor in his native southern California with a wife, three kids and two hobbies—tattooing and buying "toys" for himself—when his company unexpectedly "downsized" his job. Baker fell into what he calls a "deep depression" that threatened a 14-year marriage.
They moved to the Chicago area, home for his wife Lisa, and sought the advice of friends for the name of a third party they could talk with about their issues. One recommended a Christian counselor, and though the initial conversation was not overtly Christian, at the end of the session the counselor asked if she could pray for them.
"We believed in God, and that was the extent of our faith," said Baker, adding that he had been reared in a Catholic home. "Lisa and I looked at each other, and shrugged. 'Whatever floats your boat,' was the thought going through my mind."
As the counselor prayed, Baker said he "focused intently" on her words.
"My wife and I both had this amazing feeling that came over both of us at the same time," Baker said. "It was like a blanket fresh from the dryer, all nice and warm and soft, and someone was laying it across our shoulders, saying, 'Follow me; it's going to be okay.'"
He broke into gut-wrenching sobs so hard he could not breathe, Baker recalled. When he regained control, he said to his wife, "This is what's wrong," the tattoo artist said in an hour-long interview with Barbara Karpouzian that aired on the Everlasting Love cable television program.
"We've shut God out of our lives," Baker told his wife. "We need this. We need Him. We need to change drastically; I need to change drastically."
He googled the name of a church in the area, and went there the next day, Sunday, figuring if he did not like it that they would try another church the following week. But he felt welcomed at Big Life Community Church, where Geoff Mitchell was founding pastor. A year later Mitchell suggested Baker lead the youth, because every week they flocked around him to get a look at his tattoos.
Baker soon had them cleaning up neighborhood graffiti as a community ministry, telling them to find their gift and use it for good, when it struck him that tattooing was his gift as well as his livelihood. How could he use it for good?
A thought he now attributes to God clicked in his mind. Removing old gang-identifying tattoos.
Baker remembered how some coworkers back in California admired his tattoos, and, recalled them saying they wished they had something other than "these ugly gang tattoos" decorating their bodies. Baker asked law enforcement friends in Oswego if they thought there might be some people locally wanting to get rid of their gang tattoos for free, and thus Ink 180 was established.
He thought there might be demand for perhaps one a week, but in his first year of ministry, 508 former gang members had their inkings removed or covered over with a fresh design by Baker. It was a ministry unique enough that he was asked to speak about it at various venues, including at a law enforcement officers' conference.
Through that, he was asked to also remove or cover up tattoos of people who had been rescued from human trafficking, which until then he had not known was a problem anywhere in the United States, much less his Chicago suburb.
"They took the art medium I love so much and made it disgusting; it broke my heart," Baker said. His heart broke even more when he saw photos of rescued victims of human trafficking: they looked to be the same age as his 14-year-old daughter and her friends.
"I couldn't say no," Baker said. "This is my calling."
In a three-year span of time, Baker has removed or covered over tattoos of more than 2,200 former gang members and rescued human trafficking victims.
"Ink 180 is not something I came up with," Baker said. "I asked God what He wanted me to do; I listened and followed through. He's done all the heavy lifting.
"Have that conversation with God," Baker said he tells people when he speaks in churches about the ministry God called him to. "Ask Him, 'What gifts have you given me that I can use to serve and help others in the community, as opposed to just using those gifts for my enjoyment in life?'
"We all have gifts," Baker continued. "It's time for us to start getting a mop and cleaning up this world, using our gifts from God."
Find out more about Ink 180 and how you might help at www.ink180.com.