OSWEGO, Ill. (Christian Examiner) – "It almost feels like you're a repo man for Jesus," says Chris Baker..
Baker is a tattoo artist with a ministry: Ink 180. He covers up the no-longer-wanted tattoos of former gang members and rescued victims of human traffickers.
"It's like you're going after these souls who have slipped toward Satan and you're pulling them back and introducing them to the Lord, and helping them realize that second chance is there for them, that God's grace is for everybody," Baker said.
"I misused the first 38 years of my life," said Baker, a virtual walking gallery of body art. Then he became a Christian and a year later found his ministry calling, and, to date he has helped more than 2,200 people heal from hurts of the past.
Baker started his ministry by covering up gang tattoos, and at the request of law enforcement branched out into removing or covering up the stain of human trafficking.
"I have a captive audience for three to five hours," Baker said, referring to the length of time he spends per session with a client. "If they're former gang members I'll ask questions ... but not if they're victims of human trafficking. They're too shattered. But as they get comfortable, they start talking."
Gang member tattoos – such as the immediately-recognizable teardrop under one eye – routinely are in visible places that cost former gang members jobs. They often are dangerous as well. Current gang members often do not like the "false advertising," and they also draw the attention of rival gangs. Plus, gang tattoos are a constant reminder of a life they want to put behind them.
"The relief on his face, you could feel it," Baker said about his first ministry client. "You could see the pain he'd been in, trying to get rid of those old tattoos that defined his past."
In his tattoo parlor, bandanas from different gangs, called "colors," hang on wires overhead for clients to look at as Baker works on them.
"They're desperate to get rid of them," Baker said of the tattoos. But it is expensive to do so, and far down the list of priorities for those struggling financially to become upstanding members of society.
God called him to start a ministry of removing or covering up tattoos at no cost, said Baker, who at the time in 2011 had been a tattoo artist for 15 years. He anticipated that the demand would be such that he would minister to maybe one former gang member a week, but a year after he started, he had done 508, each taking two or more sessions because of the number of tattoos each client wore.
Today his ministry – Ink 180 – is about 70 percent of the tattooing he does. The "180" in the name refers to the complete turnaround possible for people finally rid of the last shackles to their old life. The ministry owns a donated, retrofitted RV and newer dually pickup Baker uses as mobile tattoo parlors to take his ministry into Chicago's urban core and elsewhere.
When Baker was speaking about his ministry to a group of law enforcement officers three years ago, he was asked about adding victims of human trafficking to his former gang member ministry. When he asked what that had to do with tattooing, they laid out photos of bar codes on the backs or sides of necks, a pimp's name, perhaps with telephone number as if to serve as a walking business card, and other "branding" types of markings.
Until that moment, he had not realized human trafficking was an issue in the United States, Baker said. He was shocked to realize girls the age of his 14-year-old daughter were being sold even in his west Chicago suburb.
"It blew me away," Baker said. "I had no idea this was happening in the United States, in Chicago, let alone in the community where I live, Oswego.
He removed a pimp's permanent ink from a 17-year-old who had been abducted from a Des Moines, Iowa, mall when she was 13, and trafficked in a dozen cities before she was rescued four years later.
"These tattoos, they're highly visible," Baker said. "We've had girls collapse on the floor when they see that [the tattoo] is gone. Just the fact they know they don't ever had to look at it again, and that it doesn't have a hold on them anymore, it's an amazing feeling. When they see it's gone, that emotion comes flowing out."
He drove one of his vehicles about six hours to another state, where he placed a nature scene over "Nicole's" former pimp's markings. She told him city authorities had started a required "John's school" for every man caught with a prostitute -- many of the women are victims of human trafficking.
At the "school," the men learn about human trafficking's effects, Nicole told Baker.
"I'm leading it," added the former victim whose life was reclaimed with the help of a solid Bible-believing church and people like Baker, each of whom helped her on her journey to physical, mental and spiritual health.
"Being that agent who gets to make that introduction to God, that's the best feeling, the best rush in the world," Baker said. "It makes it all worth it."
Baker now speaks occasionally at the class Nicole leads. It is, he says, just another growth of the ministry God gave him when Baker told him he would do anything God wanted him to do.