June 25, 2024
These Kentucky artists are ridding the world of hate, one tattoo at a time

These Kentucky artists are ridding the world of hate, one tattoo at a time

But during the past year, many people have also decided to abandon symbols of hate by reaching out to two tattoo artists in Kentucky.

Today, King estimates they’ve received several hundred inquiries from far beyond Kentucky.

“It’s every part of the country that’s contacted me — from New York to California. Literally. And people internationally,” King said. “Ireland, Canada, Korea. … I even had a girl call me from South Africa.”

Their ‘Cover the Hate’ campaign was inspired by the racial justice protests that swept the globe last May after the killing of George Floyd.

Tattoo artists Ryun King (left) and Jeremiah Swift

“Seeing people risking their lives for the Black Lives Matter movement on TV, that moved me greatly,” King said.

“It was pretty much the only way to use what I can do to help,” Swift said. “I’m pretty small town, so — just trying to do my part.”

Covering a tattoo can take several hours, but the two men have since covered a few dozen — and they have no plans to stop.

Kevin, whose last name is withheld out of concerns for his safety, is one of those who has been helped by their efforts. The racist tattoos he’d gotten as a young man — like a ‘White Power’ tattoo on his calf — had become a painful reminder of his past intolerance.

“I was never raised to be racist, I just was around the wrong people,” he said. “I went through that real bad period and … wanted to show everyone that I was above them.”

“One day, you just realize this racist thing is stupid. Everyone’s equal.”

He says he’s been ashamed of his tattoos for years, especially now that he has two mixed-race granddaughters.

“I love my grandbabies to death,” he said. “If I was still the way I was back then, I would’ve missed out on these amazing girls.”

But covering a tattoo can cost hundreds of dollars, which Kevin couldn’t afford.

“It can be a big chunk of money,” he said. “And you’ve got to tell that story, you know? You don’t want to be judged.”

Kevin lives several hours outside of Murray, but he was more than willing to make a long drive to get his tattoos covered by King.

“Ryun didn’t judge me at all,” he said. “He was like, ‘Hey, let’s get this done.'”

He added, “It’s like a change in life, and this is the last step. And this man’s here to help you to fulfill it.”

With King’s handiwork, Kevin has covered three tattoos and plans to get two more done. With each hateful symbol that disappears, he says he feels happier.

“The first time I could look in the mirror, it was kind of like a relief,” he said. “It changes you. And it changes you for the good.”

King says each tattoo he covers makes him feel better, too.

“It’s a really good feeling to get rid of that, gone forever from the world,” King said. “One person at a time, one tattoo at a time.”

CNN spoke to King about his work. Below is an edited version of the conversation.

CNN: Tattoos are so personal — what’s it like to do this type of work?

Ryun King: It’s pretty emotional. I can see their nervousness, anxiety, and I’m like, “Look, man, we’re here to get rid of that, because I know you’ve already moved past that.” It’s a pretty brave moment for those people.

They’ll talk about their tattoos while they’re getting it done. There’s a lot of stories that are very painful. I’ll get choked up, you know? Emotionally, it’s been challenging for me. But these people have dealt with it their whole life, so I can deal with it for a few hours.

You can see them transform as the tattoo gets done — from being kind of antsy to this wave of letting it all go. They’ve probably let it go in their heart years ago, but it being gone from their body — tattoos are a physical representation of an emotional state of mind, so once that’s gone, it’s gone from everything.

CNN: What’s involved in covering up a tattoo, technically?

King: Cover-ups, in general, are extremely difficult and most of these tattoos are pretty old, worn, and outdated, just like that ideology. You give me a giant, black, racist tattoo, and I’m like, “Okay, well what colors can I use? How much detail can this have? What direction does this have to face?”

For, let’s say, a giant swastika — I’ve noticed that four-leaf clovers work really well. I mean, it’s a good luck symbol and it’s round. Certain traditional tattoos work really good — panthers, eagles, flowers, roses — stuff you can pack a lot of heavy color in.

CNN: How has the community responded to your effort?

King: There’s been people out there doing this before us, but they just haven’t been getting that same kind of promotion and response that we have. The community response has been amazing. We’ve had a lot of people help us with donations and we now have 11 other shops helping, so that’s inspiring.

I’d love it to be a nationwide standing shop policy. So, if you have the ability, the time and the want — help! We try to do two to three a week, but we have a lot of requests. This is genuinely helping people move past their past. It’s powerful.