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Tattoo parlor on a mission to remove ink -- and painful memories

Free removal of racist tattoos
Tattoo shop offers free removal of gang-related or racist images 05:05

More than 50 million Americans have a least one tattoo. Many get inked to celebrate a memory or a loved one. As part of our ongoing series, "A More Perfect Union," we look at the power of body language written in ink with a story of second chances--when a tattoo's meaning is something the owner would rather forget.

Whether in prison or out on the streets, for some, a gang tattoo or a symbol of hate can seem like a great idea. But long after people move on in their hearts, those tattoos can make it impossible to move on in their lives.

One tattoo parlor in Baltimore has decided to help by using pigments for positive change, reports CBS News correspondent Tony Dokoupil.

Randy Sturgil knows a lot about getting tattoos. The 28-year old has them all over his body -- most he got while serving eight years in prison for armed robbery.

But today isn't about new ink, it's about becoming a new man. Sturgil has a Nazi emblem tattooed on his hand.

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"You know it sounds really stupid but I mean, I did it I guess, kinda to fit in, you know?" Sturgil said.

One day each week, shop owners Elizabeth and Dave Cutlip cover up racist and gang-related tattoos -- for free.

"If you've made that mistake and you're past that in your life, we're going to help you out!" Elizabeth said. 

"We had someone come in here that had tattoos on their face of a gang that they were in in prison," said Dave.

"We referred him to get laser treatment, and on the way home, I said to Dave, we could probably help a lot of people Dave, you know, cover up these gang tattoos so they could get jobs and re-enter society and not have that stigma attached to them," Elizabeth said. 

Typically, a cover-up can run anywhere from a few hundred to well more than a thousand dollars.  And the Cutlips aren't only comping local customers. In January, they made their offer to the whole world.

"We posted it on Facebook that we were going to help people thinking that we were just going to help people in our community and... I just see the numbers like, they're going up to thousands and thousand and thousands….and then messages started pouring in and pouring in and pouring in," Elizabeth said

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With almost 5,000 cover-up requests so far, the couple launched a website. The goal is to build a national network of tattoo parlors where customers can kick-start a new life by covering the hateful symbols of their old one.

"I didn't know there were that many racist people in America!  Sometimes I'll read these emails and I would cry, and I'm just like, I cannot believe that. They had that much hate inside of them," Elizabeth said.

"How do you know they don't still have it inside of them?" Dokoupil asked.

"I would like to think that I'm a pretty good judge of character and I know that she is, and we definitely talk to these people and you can see it if they're, you know, if they're changed," Dave said.

The Cutlips say they use social media to check the background of potential customers like Sturgil.  If they sense the client isn't genuinely ready to change, they won't do the tattoo.

"You know, I guess there comes a time when everybody is, like, when you change, whether you're dead or you're alive," Sturgil said. 

For Sturgil, that time has indeed come.

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Elizabeth wishes she knew the name of that first person who walked in with tattoos on his face. 

"He had tears in his eyes and it kind of shook me up," Elizabeth said.

The story still makes her tear up.   

"I think it's important that everybody gets a second chance," she added.

For tattoos that are too prominent to simply cover up, the Cutlips are hoping to use the almost $20,000 they've raised on a GoFundMe page to pay for laser tattoo removal.

And they have a message for the man with the face tattoo who inspired their project:  come back in for a free removal anytime.

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