On more occasions than he can count, clients who have walked into Robert Bader’s business to get a new tattoo have also told him about a tattoo they regret.
A name of an ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend. A cartoon character that’s no longer their favorite. A phrase that’s misspelled.
Other ink isn’t as “low-level regrettable,” Bader said. He has met people with tattoos related to racism or hate speech or gang activity.
“Unfortunately, when you brand yourself, it stays with you,” Bader said. "These are people who think differently about the tattoo than when they got it. These are people that have changed."
And they want their tattoos to change, too.
In those cases, Bader, who opened The Crow’s Nest, a tattoo and body piercing shop in Dubuque, in 2015, has long wanted to be able to help.
"A lot of people don't have the means to get it removed or to travel to do that," he said. "We've had to turn them away."
Now, Bader will be able to help.
In a room near the back of his shop on Main Street in Dubuque, Bader will unveil Retrospect Tattoo Removal, equipped with laser tattoo removal technology, on Monday.
The business-within-a-business comes with a big mission: Bader plans to offer free removals for people with tattoos related to gangs, hate speech, racism or human trafficking.
Why for free?
‘To touch lives and to change lives,” Bader said. “To give people a fresh start.”
And, because, when removing hateful tattoos, it's another step in simply removing hate from the world.
“It’s basically good versus evil," Bader said.
'A brand of hate'
The inspiration behind Retrospect traces back to 2011, when Bader was working at a different tattoo shop in Dubuque.
He met a client who was getting a tattoo in honor of his granddaughter, who was just a few months old at the time.
As the new tattoo took shape, Bader noticed a “large and deeply racist tattoo” on the man’s body.
“He saw that I had noticed it and he just had this look of disappointment,” Bader said.
They talked for three hours about the man’s past — including his upbringing in rural Alabama and involvement with the Klu Klux Klan as a teenager — and about how the man had changed.
“He knew that it was wrong,” Bader said. “My heart went out to him. You could see it in his eyes and his tears that he had changed.”
At the time, Bader remembers thinking, “Man, if I had a laser, I’d take it off right now for free. No problem.”
Over the years, Bader met people in similar situations.
"This was not the only time, or the only story I would hear in the following 7 years," he wrote earlier this month in a blog post that has been shared over 200 times on Facebook. "I have seen ex-gang members filled with the same deep regret. Even with college degrees, some are still unable to move forward in their life due to permanently being marked in a highly visible area. I hear stories of them still being profiled, shunned, turned down, all because of an influential upbringing steering them into a lifestyle that included getting tattoos to show their loyalty."
Elsewhere in the country, programs such as INK (I Now Know) provide free tattoo removals for people who were formerly incarcerated or members of a gang or survivors of human trafficking. Several years ago, a New York-based doctor started Fresh Start Tattoo Removal Program, Inc., a nonprofit, that offers free removals for ex-cons. There are over 3,000 people on the program's waiting list.
Locally, Josh Kilby, a tattoo artist at Tooth and Nail on Brady Street in Davenport, has seen “the need” for something like this.
Clients who have tattoos they no longer want come into Tooth and Nail “almost on a daily basis,” Kilby said.
“That’s where I try to steer people away from tattoos ideas that may not last or they may not want to have forever,” he said. “I try to remind people, you know, this is permanent.”
He also has strict rules. Kilby, like artists at The Crow’s Nest and many professional shops, won’t do face, neck or hand tattoos.
As Bader said, “Anything ignorant is immediately turned down. And by ignorant, I mean anything gang-affiliated, anything that singles out a certain race or that is just disgusting.”
Kilby said he has only seen a handful of those tattoos in-person.
“But those kinds of tattoos do exist,” he said. “They’re out there.”
Kilby knows from experience. He has previously covered up a swastika tattoo.
“Having that on your body… it’s a brand of hate,” he said. “There’s nothing positive about it. You can’t be positive and have a swastika on your forehead.”
The fact that Bader will be able to remove ink of that nature for free, Kilby said, is a “wonderful thing.”
“That can be the thing that’s holding them back from their potential,” he said. “Everybody deserves a second chance.”
'That’s just who I am'
On Bader’s business card, “Woodstock,” appears instead of his given name.
It’s a nickname, inspired by the Peanuts comic strip, his mother gave him when he was 6 and it’s what everybody has called him n the 34 years since. Underneath the nickname, there’s a list of words including owner, artist and jewelry specialist. The final descriptor, perhaps the most important one to Bader, is this: Humanitarian.
Since he opened the Crow’s Nest, the native of Miami, Florida, has made giving back — including annual donations to charities and area families in need — part of his business plan.
“With anything I do, there has to be a part of it that gives back,” Bader said. “That’s just who I am.”
When it comes to opening Retrospect, which he estimates as an $80,000 investment, he’s taking that up a notch. Starting this week, Retrospect has 17 consultations scheduled. Two of those clients will be seeking free removals.
“To me, it means we don’t have to turn people away anymore,” Bader said. “If I changed one person’s life, that would be enough.”
When those tattoos are wiped out, Ali Lynch, a tattoo artist at the Crow’s Nest, expects “it will feel very freeing for people.”
“Every time I get a new tattoo, I feel like more myself,” Lynch said. “I’m sure it’s going to be the same for someone who gets a tattoo removed that they no longer believe in. They'll probably feel more like themselves."