There’s normally a story behind a tattoo.
If that’s the case, then Oswego resident and tattoo artist Chris Baker has seen a whole lot of stories and helped to write hundreds of new chapters.
Baker is the founder of INK 180, a non-profit organization in which he creates cover-up tattoos free of charge for victims of sex trafficking and old gang members looking to turn their lives around.
Tattooing was always something of a passion for Baker, but never a job.
He has been collecting tattoos since he was 18 and had always wanted to make tattoos himself. But when he was younger he dropped out of high school to help support his mom and sister and threw his artistic talent under the rug.
It wasn’t until he was about 25 years old and hanging out in a friend’s tattoo shop that Baker rediscovered that old dream.
“I was with a friend and he was trying to finish up a drawing. He kept having artist block so I just took it from him, finished it, threw it back at him and was like, okay, can we go now?” Baker said. “And he was like, this is really good!”
Baker still didn’t pursue tattooing as a formal job. A couple of years ago, Baker was out in California making an easy six-figures, and living a great life with his family.
But when he lost his job things began to change.
Baker had always been involved with his church and being a leader. He was a Young Life Leader and often did community service projects with his group of boys he taught.
“This is great, they’re getting excited,” he recalled of taking his group to help paint over graffiti in Joliet.
But he grew frustrated. “I felt like they were just checking the box,” he said. “There’s a good deed, done.”
Baker had always told his kids to pray for what the next thing is that God wants you to do. He has a purpose. “And I realized I had to take my own advice.”
He said he prayed about it and thought about it, asking God what He wanted him to do.
Baker and his family have often participated in service projects, coat drives, and all sorts of community projects. “I love doing all that,” said Baker. “But I didn’t feel like it was my purpose.”
Baker said God answered him very quickly and clearly, although it took Baker a little bit to figure out what it mean. “What do you want to do more than anything else in the world? How can you make it into something to help others?”
The answer hit him: Tattooing. But how was he supposed to turn his hobby into some type of community service?
Finding his reason
When Chris Baker worked in warehouse management he said he always had guys who were “coming out of the system, going through hard times.” They had tattoos in common, although Baker’s were his own and theirs were gang symbols. Baker always wished he could do something to help.
And that’s when it clicked. He could offer to cover-up tattoos for old gang members looking for a fresh start. Baker contacted some probation officers he knew out in Chicago to see if they would be interested.
They said he’d have people lined up all the time. Baker thought maybe 5 to 10 a month.
It was closer to fifty.
Just when Baker thought it couldn’t get busier, he received a phone call from a Homeland Security sex trafficking team who wanted to sit in on one of his presentations.
“And I thought, no, that doesn’t happen here,” Baker said.
But he found it does. Not just in large cities either, Baker said it happens in Oswego too.
“From that moment on, my whole world with this changed big time,” said Baker. “I get physically ill with reports about missing kids. I’ve seen and heard so many stories from the victim’s that lived through this hell. I get furious about it.”
He shared a story of one victim he helped, a girl who ran away from home at 13-years-old because her parents took away her cell phone. “It’s sickening. What’s really scary is they all look like my daughter.”
Baker created Ink 180 about 14 months ago and has done over 500 tattoo cover-ups, mostly with his own money. Last year, Baker said he spent $12,000 of his own, which was hard because he currently isn’t employed.
“But I’ll tell you, I’ve never been as happy as I have been right now,” he said. “I am very blessed. My family is very supportive of Ink 180 and they’re all very involved.”
Geoff Mitchell, Pastor at Big Life Church where Baker tells stories about INK 180, said Baker has a huge impact on the church.
“Chris brings message of love and good to the people he works with,” said Mitchell. “When he shares a story with us, it has such an impact.”
“I’m just trying to do something meaningful, anyway where I can help someone out,” said Baker.
“When I do these cover-ups, I think it’s a small piece of the recovery of that person. It takes away that constant visual reminder of their past, what they used to be.”
Where he’s headed
Baker recently gained approval from the Kendall County Health Department to open a shop off of Route 34 in Oswego.
His hope is to have a family-friendly environment where those who want a tattoo can feel comfortable getting one. The proceeds from those tattoos would help fund his INK 180 clients, who would have a separate room at the shop.
Currently, Baker travels to where ever he is needed. Just about a week ago he went up to Appleton, Wisconsin to remove a tattoo of a sex-trafficking victim.
For now, Baker will continue funding Ink 180 from his own pocket and donations. He is selling bracelets with INK 180 on them to help raise funds as well. More information can be seen here for those interested in purchasing a bracelet or making a donation.
Mitchell summed up the entire experience well when he said, “I dream of the day when we don’t need INK 180 anymore. When no one is in a gang, no one’s caught up in human trafficking.”
But until that day comes, Chris Baker will be right there, tattoo gun in hand and concerned smile on his face, ready to make a difference in so many lives.