Bryan Nicosia joined the Aryan Brotherhood while serving time at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility. As a member, he received two tattoos commemorating his ascension through its ranks: an Iron Cross with two lightning bolts, on his right forearm; and the letters A and B, trailed by five swastikas, on his left shoulder.
Nicosia says he did what he had to do to stay alive behind bars but dissociated from the Brotherhood entirely as soon as he was released in 2018. Now, he wants the reminder off his body.
“When I show up at my friend’s place during a cookout, who wants to see that?” said Nicosia, a 37-year-old steel mill worker from Steubenville, Ohio. “When their kids want to play basketball with me or when they want to go to the pool, they’ll ask me, ‘Oh, what does this mean? What does that mean?’ It’s an eye-opening experience when you have kids ask you that. It’s a real awakening.”
Nicosia knew he wanted to get rid of the tattoos when he was released, but trying to get back on his feet after prison kept him from prioritizing this big step. But after months of protests over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black and brown Americans killed by police — and with the help of his fiancee — he finally decided to go through with his plan earlier this month. He’s been working with fellow Ohioan and tattoo artist Billy White, who specializes in this kind of work.
“A lot of these people have walked away from this ideology many years ago,” White told VICE News. “And I think, with the climate of society, it’s just kind of lit the fire under their butts a little bit for them to really want to make that jump.”
Nicosia is just one of White’s recent clients who hope to cover up the hateful imagery they once proudly displayed across their bodies. In the last few months, his shop, Red Rose Tattoo in Zanesville, Ohio, has seen a 20% jump in people requesting cover-ups of racist tattoos. Across the country, tattoo artists like White, laser removal specialists, and anti-hate speech advocates say they’ve received a similar flood of requests for alterations on their tattoos, particularly ones that feature the Confederate flag.
White says he’s used to people asking about removing swastikas and other iconography associated with Aryan beliefs. But the spike in requests concerning the Confederate flag is a new trend, echoing the efforts in many American cities where politicians or protesters are actively taking down monuments to Confederate-era leaders.