'I Choose To Inject Love': Meet The Iowa Tattoo Artist Who Removes Hateful Ink For Free

"I’m willing to give my blood, sweat equity to this cause."

For 10 years, Robert Bader has been helping people cover their bodies in ink. Now, he's helping clients remove tattoos, too.

Bader, who goes by "Woodstock" and owns The Crow's Nest in Dubuque, Iowa, is opening a back room in his tattoo parlor with a different title: Retrospect Tattoo Removal. Bader works for free once a week to help people remove tattoos that display hateful language or are gang-affiliated. 

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"Being in the tattoo industry for nearly 10 years now, I have heard more stories than I can count of people making regrettable mistakes in the earlier phase of their lives," Bader told A Plus in an email. "In these stories, I heard of them growing up to believe in racism and hate, others growing up to seek refuge in a gang when no one else wanted them. Either way, they were misguided."

Robert Bader, aka "Woodstock," works on a client at The Crow's Nest. Robert Bader

Bader first got the idea to do tattoo removal in 2011 when a friendly, older man came into his work and began telling stories about his granddaughter. But then Bader noticed a large, racist tattoo that the man had. The two began discussing his past. 

"This gentleman told me he was raised in the sticks of Alabama, with a family that brandished the Confederate flag with pride," Bader wrote in a blog post about the man. "Just a young, innocent boy, being groomed to believe that there was a clear line between all races."

Eventually, as a teenager, the man joined the Klu Klux Klan and got the hate group's symbol tattoed on his body. Years after his views had changed, the man came into Bader's shop wanting to cover up or remove the tattoos — but he couldn't afford it. Bader wanted to help. And over the years, he's seen the same story play out in different ways. From former gang members to former members of extremist groups, many people, he says, are just looking for a clean slate.

"Too often, it seems to be more the norm to tear people down, rather than attempting to build them up," Bader said in an email. "When watching the news, reading the paper, or just scrolling around on various social media sites, I see a staggering amount of strategically placed fear, hate, and judgment... I want to do what I can to fight this truth."

As a child, Bader said his father taught him to give back. He's learned over the years that every act of giving, no matter how small, has a purpose.

"I choose to inject love into the world," he said. "I am no one special. I am not perfect. I make mistakes and I fail, but I always try to do my best, and give where and when I can."

Bader in the back room of his tattoo parlor that now does removals. Robert Bader

While Bader says he didn't have any tattoos of his own that he regrets, he subscribes to the old adage of not judging a book by its over. Other tattoo artists across the country have offered similar free services to people with intolerant tattoos. Southside Tattoo Parlor in Baltimore opens its doors once a week for people to come in and have their tattoos covered up. But Bader's offer to do free removals is pretty unique. 

"If you are wondering how I can afford to do this, I simply I dedicate one day a week to free removals," he said. "I'm willing to give my blood, sweat equity to this cause."

As time has gone on, Bader has only become more dedicated to this work. A couple clients have stuck with him for a long time: a young man who was an ex-gang member and came to Bader for help. As a boy, his mother died from her drug addiction and his father disappeared. He shuffled between homes and when he was 12, he made what he thought was a family with gang members. As a teenager, he began covering his body in gang tattoos — his arms, neck, hands and chest. Now, the same man has a family of his own, is a college graduate, but can't get work in his field because of his tattoos.  

Another former gang member, who is now a father of two, came to Bader because the tattoos he has put his family in danger. The man's children also ask him what the tattoos mean. 

"He believes now that violence is not the answer, and wants to be a leader to his children," Bader said. "This man cried in our first session together, not because of pain, but because of an emotional release. His tears will always remain a driving force of why I'm doing this."

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