Two and a half years ago my friend, Chris Baker, sat in marriage counseling with his wife, having no idea that his life was about to change forever.
Chris and his wife were both deeply skeptical of God and the Church. When the counselor asked if she could pray for them he thought, "Why not. Can't hurt I guess." What happened next would begin a wild journey that continues to unfold today.
"As the counselor prayed, it felt like a warm blanket was put over me. I started crying," he said.
On the way home, his wife told him that she had a similar feeling at the same time. He realized that God was speaking to them both. He was showing them the depths of his love and grace and it transformed them.
Fast forward two and half years, and Chris is the founder of INK 180, a ministry based in Oswego that offers free cover-up tattoos for former gang members who are looking to turn their lives around.
"I believe everyone deserves a second chance at life, and I want to offer them help to live their second chance," he said.
At the church where Chris and his family attend, Chris is a sponsor for the middle and high school youth group. A while back they were talking about ways to serve their community and when one student suggested they cover up gang graffiti with more beautiful art, Chris had a light bulb moment. For the last nine years, Chris has been a tattoo artist and he realized that God could use his passion for skin art to make a difference.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Chris knows a lot about gangs and their culture.
"I've always felt a pull to those guys," he said. " I've always wanted to help them, but didn't know how."
One of the identifiers that gangs use to mark their affiliation are their tattoos. From a swastika to a crown, gangs tattoo one another as a way to say, "You belong to us now."
So what happens when a member decides to leave and change their life?
As Chris says, "To these guys, their gang tattoos are a daily reminder of their failure. They have trouble finding work because people don't want to hire people with gang tattoos."
Chris decided to contact a friend he has at the Cook County probation department to see if there would be any interest if he offered free cover-ups. He barely finished asking before his friend said, "100% yes. We've been waiting for someone to do something like this for a long time." That was in October of 2011. Since then, Chris has done 210 cover-ups free of charge (Read the sentence again. Wow.).
He now has connections with a number of law enforcement agencies in the Chicagoland area, including the FBI. God is growing this ministry at an incredible rate, and he's just trying to keep up.
As I type this, Chris is in Kansas City doing cover-ups for some former gang members there. And did I mention the possible reality TV show? Chris has a friend in California who's job is pitching shows to TV executives.
She found his Facebook page, read about INK 180 and asked if she could pitch the idea for a possible show. So Chris worked with local videographer Todd Pierson to create a video (you can find it attached to this article) to send to the executives in California. Chris is excited about the potential to present a side of tattooing that is positive and helpful. "There's never been a show about people who are trying to leave gang life, and most tattoo shows are just full of drama and negativity. I think it would be exciting to present a more positive show."
Chris is an amazing picture of what God can and will do if only we are willing. Two and half years ago, Chris experienced God beckoning him to lay down his life. He simply said, "OK," and his life has never been the same. He helps people because he knows how much God has done for him.
"These tattoo cover-ups put beauty over garbage," Chris told me.
I can't express to you how much that resonates with me. This world needs more people like Chris who are willing to bring beauty out of garbage.
I encourage you to visit the INK 180 Facebook page to stay updated on the amazing work that Chris is doing in Oswego and beyond.