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Metamorphosis in ink

Red Rose Tattoo is erasing hate one tattoo at a time

Billy Joe White covers up a racist tattoo. Photo courtesy of Beneath the Ink

Metamorphosis in ink

When 19-year-old Billy Joe White took a job at a skateboard and tattoo shop, he had no idea that 13 years later he would embark on a personal mission transforming body art to counteract a hate crime committed 400 miles from his home in Zanesville, Ohio.

Charlottesville, Va., made national headlines in August 2017 when 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr. plowed his car into a crowd protesting the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Fields, an avowed white supremacist, killed one woman and injured dozens more.

When White learned Fields was from Ohio, he felt compelled to take action to offset the negative image of his home state. He posted an offer on Facebook Live offering to cover up tattoos promoting hate, giving away the first 10 “cover-ups” for free. Customers responded almost immediately.

In two months, the first 10 were done. But the requests kept coming, and White decided to extend his offer indefinitely. White and his staff at Red Rose Tattoo have completed over 100 cover-ups and counting. Profits from their regular work fund the free work.

Clients redeeming his free offer often come from prison or gang life and a lower socioeconomic bracket. They cannot afford to pay what can amount to hundreds or thousands of dollars for the work. White doesn’t judge them and doesn’t make them pay. He and his staff want people to feel valued: “We want to put our energy, our money, and our resources into kind of rehabilitating everybody if we can.”

A 2018 documentary short film—Beneath the Ink—about White’s work received a 2019 Emmy nomination. In January 2020, White received a Cultural Awareness Award from Ohio’s MLK Holiday Commission in recognition for helping people “erase the hate.”

Not all view White’s work favorably. He has gotten death threats from “dudes rocking swastikas” to those with KKK affiliations. However, he was most surprised by the pushback from far-left liberals who oppose his work and don’t believe his cover-up patrons deserve any grace or forgiveness. White reacts by recounting a meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s nephew who told him “that’s how you know you’re making a difference.”

I try to just bring grace to everybody and every situation whether or not it seems like they want it.

People often ask White if he is a former white supremacist and whether he partied with hate groups. While the answer is “no,” such discussions give him insight into people and their trauma, which has helped him deal with his own.

White hails from a blue-collar family. In high school, he was student council president, class president, and salutatorian—an unlikely background for someone sporting arms covered in ink. His father was a coal miner who died from emphysema, and his mother a factory worker who overcame breast cancer but succumbed to lung cancer. In his mid-20s, White lost both his parents within a span of 49 hours.

Eventually, he learned to cope with his loss by pouring himself into serving others: participating in various charity drives during the anniversary of their deaths. One year, on the anniversary of losing his mom, he tattooed over the breast cancer scars of a woman who had a mastectomy. That hit him close to home. He describes it as the most powerful ­cover-up he has ever done.

When asked about his own body art, the most meaningful tattoos relate to his kids: two girls and one boy—ages 16, 15, and 11. They each tattooed their names on his left forearm.

Photo courtesy of Beneath the Ink

Does he ever refuse to do a tattoo? He claims he spends more time telling people “no” than “yes.” His reasons vary. The requested design may not be his style so he refers them to another shop. He also declines on ethical grounds, refusing work that goes against his moral compass. He considers it his duty to teach people how to get tattooed “the right way” for the right reasons. He opposes people who “weaponize tattoos” and use them to hurt others.

He pays little attention to social media—dismissing the negative and even the positive comments. The opinions that matter most come from daily interactions with customers. He and his staff strive to create a safe space where a person with muddy boots and ripped jeans can sit next to a suited professional and trade stories.

White has seen lives visibly changed by his transformative work. John, who appeared in the documentary, struggled with anger, hate, and self-turmoil. Today, he is confident and in a healthy relationship. Another man cried in the shop after receiving his cover-up. He was previously ashamed to take his shirt off in front of his wife because what was previously inked on him messed with his head.

White doesn’t profess to be a Christian, but his life, work, and words exemplify relational bridge-building: “I try to just bring grace to everybody and every situation whether or not it seems like they want it or need it.”

Maryrose Delahunty

Maryrose is a WORLD correspondent, a graduate of World Journalism Institute, and a practicing attorney.


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