What's more painful than getting a tattoo? Removing one. Now, imagine removing not just one or two tattoos - but ones all over your face. That's what reformed skinhead Bryon Widner did, when he decided the pain of living with marks of hatred on his face was worse than the agony it would take to remove them.
Widner underwent 25 surgeries to remove tattoos on his face, neck, and hands - still leaving the ones all over his body. Keep clicking to learn more about the process Widner went through, and for remarkable before and after photos...
Widner was the founder of a white supremacist gang of skinheads - but after getting married and becoming a father in 2006, he was determined to put his racist past behind him. Unfortunately, the ever-present tattoos on his face and body made it hard for him to fit into society. People saw a menacing thug, not a loving father, the Associated Press reports.
Widner's wife, Julie Larsen, is also a former founding member of the white power movement - but she's the one who motivated her husband to rid himself of his racist appearance. Together, the couple scoured the Internet trying to learn how to safely remove facial tattoos - but such tattoos are extremely rare, and few doctors have performed such complicated surgery. The couple also couldn't afford the procedure - so Widner investigated homemade recipes.
"I was totally prepared to douse my face in acid," he said.
Larsen desperately tried to find someone to help pay for Widner's surgeries. Eventually, Joseph Roy, who investigates hate groups for the Southern Poverty Law Center found a donor willing to pay for the procedures.
"Very rarely have we met a reformed racist skinhead," says Roy, who has encountered many "fakes" over the years, in temporary crisis or trying to spread false intelligence.
Dr. Bruce Shack, chair of the Department of Plastic Surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, vividly remembers the first time he met Widner. After talking to the Center, he had agreed to do the surgery - but he was totally unprepared for Widner's face.
"This wasn't just a few tattoos," he said. "This was an entire canvas."
Dr. Shack burned the tattoos off Widner's face using a laser to trace their exact outlines.
While a much safer procedure than any home remedy, it certainly didn't hurt any less. "You are going to feel like you have the worst sunburn in the world, your face will swell up like a prizefighter, but it will eventually heal," Dr. Shack told Widner, describing the process. "This is not going to be any fun."
Widner's first surgery was on June 22, 2009. During the first couple of sessions, his face and eyes puffed up, and his hands looked like blistered boxing gloves. Dr. Shack decided that Widner was in too much pain, so he began to put him under general anesthetic for every operation.
They developed a routine. Every few weeks, Widner would spend about an hour and a half in surgery and another hour in recovery.
The procedures went slower than anticipated. Widner was initially supposed to have seven or eight sessions - but they turned into a total of 25 over the course of 16 months.
It often took days for the burns and oozing blisters to subside. But Widner had remarkable endurance, and even nurses who were at first intimidated by his looks found themselves growing fond of the stubborn former skinhead and his young family.
Through his surgeries, Widner's family agreed to allow an MSNBC film crew to tape the procedures, sparing no details.
Widner didn't care that his agony was made public. If anything, he felt that he deserved the pain and public humiliation as a kind of penance for all the hurt he caused over the years.
On Oct. 22, 2010, the day of the final operation, Dr. Shack hugged Julie and shook hands with Bryon. Removing the tattoos, he said, had been one of his greatest honors as a surgeon.
Here is Widner with his family after his surgeries. Widner's sponsor had agreed to fund the surgeries - at a cost of approximately $35,000 - on several conditions. She wanted to remain anonymous. And she wanted assurances that Bryon would get his GED, would go into counseling and would pursue either a college education or a trade.
Widner's arms and torso are still extensively tattooed. He is in the process of inking over the "political" ones, like the Nazi lightning bolts. His face is clean and scar free, and he has a shock of thick black hair. With his thin glasses and studious expression, he looks nerdy, his wife jokes.
Widner's neck and hands have suffered some pigment damage, he gets frequent migraine headaches and he has to stay out of the sun. But, he says, "it's a small price to pay for being human again."
Widner and his wife have thrown out everything to do with their racist past. Only a few trusted friends and family members know where they live. They say they feel safe, with police officers and firefighters nearby, but still can't help but worry - it's one thing to get out of the white power movement and fade into obscurity. It's another to publicly denounce the violent world they once inhabited. But Widner holds out hope that some angry young teenager on the verge of becoming a skinhead might see his suffering and think twice.