By Liz McEwan
One great miracle of the Christian life is the way God chooses to redeem the past rather than simply erase it. For people who come to faith as adults, this is often their story: God takes the broken pieces of their former lives and turns them into tools to be used for his glory and his kingdom. Tattoo artist Chris Baker is no exception to the rule.
Chris Baker’s suburban Chicago tattoo shop, INK 180 (ink180.com), is the marriage of his passion for body art and his commitment to bringing transformation to those who need it. Through this artistic ministry, Chris not only testifies to the transformation he has experienced in his own life, but he shares that redemption with others by covering and removing gang and human trafficking tattoos free of charge.
Called to Faith and Ministry
Long before he fell in love with Christ, Chris Baker loved art. He said he was “always artistic as a kid, drawing and doing graffiti murals.” As an adult, he started working as a tattoo artist.
It was desperation that first brought Chris to Jesus six years ago. While suffering through a bout of depression, he and his wife spent some time in counseling with a Christian marriage therapist. During one of the sessions, Chris believes he felt the nudge of God.
“Follow me,” he heard God say. “You can have a new life; you can be a new creation.”
Chris and his wife didn’t need much convincing; they were in church the very next day. Jesus took charge and Chris’s faith grew, even landing him in youth ministry with his church. Like him, the students were interested in art and they searched together for “a way to use art to serve God and the community.”
One of their first projects together was covering up gang graffiti with murals. It was an artistic outlet for both Chris and his students and was a tangible symbol of the transformation they had received through Christ. He felt it wasn’t enough though, and he and his students started praying to the Lord for more ministry.
Finding a Place for His Art
Chris explained how the vision for INK 180 came together:
“I grew up in Los Angeles and so many of my friends were in gangs,” he said. “The ones that were lucky enough to grow up out of it and have families would tell me, ‘Man, Chris, I wish I could get nice tattoos like you. All I have are these old gang tattoos. I can’t get a job, the cops harass me all the time, and I’m always getting into fights because of them.’
“That’s when it clicked,” he said. “I could help them cover or remove these tattoos to show them that they too can get a second chance in Jesus, just like me.”
The idea for INK 180 was born. Much like the gang graffiti on city walls, Chris knew the significance of gang tattoos. He understood the gravity of what they represented, both to the world and to the one with the tattoos. If covering the graffiti with murals was a service to his community, covering up the tattoos could be a ministry to people still trapped in cycles of sin and violence or the guilt of their former lives.
A Bigger Need than He Knew
Chris connected with a friend who worked in law enforcement to see if this idea had warrant. His friend confirmed that, yes, gang tattoos were not only a painful reminder of gang affiliation, but often a real impediment to moving on. For people who have done the difficult work involved in leaving a life of crime, these tattoos are like a brand on their skin, reminding them daily of their past.
It was the local Homeland Security office that introduced Chris Baker to another side of law enforcement where his ministry would prove valuable: human trafficking.
This often-hidden world of crime victimizes thousands of people across the country—mostly women and girls. They are taken from vulnerable situations, such as homelessness or addiction, and forced into lives of crime, sexual slavery, drug use, and domestic abuse. Many of them are tattooed with names, symbols, or barcodes by their “owners” to ensure they can be found and returned if they run away. After being rescued by law enforcement, many of these women are rehabilitated, but the physical reminders are still present. Similar to the former gang members, tattoos are simply too expensive for these women to cover up or remove.
For Chris, it was obvious that his favorite art form could be the perfect solution to the problem facing these men and women. They needed to experience transformation in their lives; Chris had a tangible way to transform it for them.
New Skin; Changed Lives
Chris has seen the fruit of his ministry in the lives of people he’s tattooed. He tells the story of a man named Darryl whom Jesus called out from a life of homelessness and gang violence. “He as a new creation is so full of spirit,” Chris said. “His commitment to change is so clear and real.” INK 180 has removed two of Darryl’s gang tattoos and is in the process of removing more.
In another instance, a woman named Nicole came to INK 180 after she was rescued from sex trafficking by law enforcement. When her pimp was being sentenced in court, Chris recalled the judge saying, “I’m giving you a life sentence because of the heinous nature of what you did to these girls and also for the fact that you branded them with tattoos. These girls are going to have to look at these tattoos every time they brush their teeth and comb their hair. They will constantly be asked what these tattoos mean and will have to relive this hell on earth every time.” Chris contacted the prosecutor’s office and offered his services to Nicole and the other 19 victims involved.
Nicole’s story of transformation is still being written. According to Chris, “She now works as a full-time advocate in the state where she lives to help others stay away from or leave sex trafficking and get the help they need. I will be training her on the tattoo removal process as well, so she can provide it for other victims where she lives.”
Body Art, Transformation, & Testimony
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Chris Baker believes so fully in this transformative power that he is proud to be “a living, breathing, walking billboard for Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior.” From the word DISCIPLE tattooed across his knuckles to Matthew 6:19-21 tattooed on his left hand, it’s impossible to mistake his tattoos as anything but a visible testimony to his faith.
INK 180 is simply an extension of Chris’s testimony. Through his ministry, Chris is able to extend the grace of Christ to others in a tangible, artistic way. Their new tattoos (or newly tattoo-free skin) are a daily reminder of God’s power to transform them as well.
Chris Baker and INK 180 are, understandably, a bit scandalous in some circles; tattooing is not always considered an “art form” among Christians. But when Chris Baker speaks to a mixed audience, he is unapologetic about his craft and his ministry because the ideas of redemption and transformation are something all Christians know well.
“I talk about the transformations that I get to witness every day. I talk about how our God is a God of second chances and that anyone who is in Christ is a new creation—the old is dead and the new is here.”
He continued, “We cover up and remove symbols of hate, violence, oppression, and guilt every day in this tattoo shop. . . . I have people tell me when I speak at their church, ‘I don’t like tattoos, but I love the work you’re doing to help people.’
“So many Christians are vehemently opposed to tattoos, and I respect their opinions. I’m not here to make everyone on earth love tattoos. I am here to use my favorite art form to help people that are trying to transform their lives.”
INK 180 is a full-service tattoo and piercing parlor in the Chicago, Illinois, suburb of Oswego. For more information on services offered at the shop, including how you can support its tattoo cover-up and removal ministry, go online (ink180.com) or email Chris (Chris@ink180.com).
Liz McEwan is a proud wife, mama, urbanite, musician, and blogger in Cincinnati, Ohio (ejmcewan.wordpress.com).