Back in 2007, Jason Bland was serving time in prison and filled with racist hate.
"In there, it tends to breed hate because you don't have much hope," he said. "I covered my body with racist tattoos because that is what I was about. I hated everything and everyone."
Those prison tattoos — a swastika on his right arm and '1488 white pride' scrawled on his left arm — no longer reflect how Bland feels and lives his life.
His 10-year-old daughter is biracial. Bland said he fought to get her out of foster care and into his family.
Bland gets emotional when asked about her.
"The second I brought her home, every bit of hate I had in my heart was instantly taken away," Bland said. "That is how the Lord did it. He said, 'If you want to hate, try hating this."
"Still yet, I have these racist scars all over my body," he said. "This guy is going to help me get rid of it."
This guy is Springfield tattoo artist Justin Fleetwood, who recently began offering to cover up racist tattoos at no charge.
Fleetwood made the announcement on his professional Facebook page earlier this month and has been surprised by the number of calls and messages he has received.
Fleetwood is an artist at Queen City Tattoo Company at 3165 S. Campbell Ave.
He knows he won't be able to spend all of his time giving free tattoos. But if he can cover one or two a week, Fleetwood said, that's a start in the right direction.
Fleetwood hopes other tattoo artists join him.
"I'm not an activist. I'm not going to storm Washington or anything like that. But this was kind of an opportunity for me to contribute to something I believe in," he said. "If I can use my trade to make a difference in people's lives, then I think that's pretty cool."
"I already feel more strongly about it just since I started talking to these people," Fleetwood said. "I was like, 'Man, this is a bigger deal than I thought to these people."
Bland was among the first to reach out to Fleetwood. The two met recently for a consultation. Fleetwood is currently working on designs to cover up Bland's racist tattoos.
Bland doesn't really care what the tattoo artist comes up with — just as long as the hate is covered and he doesn't have to explain to his young daughter why 'white pride' is on his arm.
He has one simple request.
"If there is a way to put something in there to thank the Lord for what He has given me," Bland said. "No matter what anybody else thinks, I know it's only because of the Lord Jesus Christ."
The first appointment
The News-Leader visited Fleetwood in late August, just as his first hate-tattoo cover-up was about to begin. The man with the racist tattoos asked that his name and face not appear in the story, but he was happy to talk about his background.
The man was scheduled to come in for a consultation, but when Fleetwood saw how easy it would be to cover the elbow tattoos, he went right to work.
As Fleetwood shaved the man's elbows, the 41-year-old said he got the tattoos while in state prison in 2004.
"All the white boys had those tattoos," he said. "I'm ashamed, I guess, embarrassed by them. Like when I go eat at the senior center with my dad, I'm super embarrassed by them."
He said his parents did not raise him to be racist and he no longer feels that way — again, the tattoos are just "what the white boys did in the state prison," he said.
"I've been changed for a while. And this is just a great opportunity for me to come upon," the man said. "I lost my mom when I was locked up. She hated all the tattoos, but she really hated the racial tattoos. She's smiling."
In addition to the swastika on his left elbow, the man has SS bolts (a Nazi symbol) on his right elbow and the words "White America" on his upper back.
Fleetwood had the two elbow tattoos covered in black within a few minutes Tuesday. He said he'll have to come up with a creative design to hide the "White America" on another day.
The man said he just started taking classes at Ozarks Technical Community College and was thrilled that the elbow tattoos would be gone before his first night class a few hours later.
"If I can get the hate off, I can live with the rest (of the tattoos)," the man said. "I'm going to school now. I don't want people to not like me because of something I had on me."
The man said there have been times in the past that he wanted to date women who are not Caucasian but was ashamed to ask them out because of his tattoos.
As the man talked, Fleetwood tattooed black ink on and around a swastika. Fleetwood seemed to enjoy hearing the man talk about the change in his heart.
"It's got me excited, to be honest with you," Fleetwood said. "I don't want to sound selfish, but I feel good. I feel good that I'm doing this."
The man continued to thank Fleetwood.
"You are doing a great thing," the man said. "We weren't going to work on this today, but I talked him into blackening the elbows in today because I have school ..."
"By the way, dude, you do not have a swastika on your elbow anymore," Fleetwood said. "It's gone. It does not exist."
For a brief time, the man stared straight ahead, smiling and emotional.
Fleetwood, too, was silent. He sat back and stared at the black circle on the man's elbow.
"That's kind of cool," Fleetwood said, enjoying the moment. "That is the first time I've got to cover one up. Yeah, I'm feeling pretty good about it right now. Yeah, dude. That is awesome."
Before Fleetwood got started on the other elbow, the man stood up and looked at his arm in the mirror.
"I really appreciate it," the man said. "It's going to be so nice walking down the hallway."
A man of God
Fleetwood said Bland's tattoos — a swastika, 1488 (a white supremacist symbol), and 'white pride' on his upper arms — will be more complicated than the two elbow cover-ups he did for the first man. He hopes to tattoo Bland in a few weeks.
Bland doesn't seem to mind the wait.
"Having a large family of six at home, I just don't have the money," Bland said. "It would cost hundreds and hundreds to get these things covered up. I'm trying to provide for my family."
He considered burning them off. He's done that before, but it was before Bland had children.
"They can't see crazy behavior," Bland said. "If they see their father doing something like that, then they will be more apt to be OK with stuff like that. I'm not raising kids. I'm raising future adults."
While he was in prison, the mother of his two children, who is now his wife, had children with two other men. One of those men was African-American.
"That amped up my hatred for anybody that wasn't like me," he said. "It was an all-consuming thing."
Just before he was released, his wife lost all four of her children to foster care. At the time, she was a drug addict, Bland said.
He got out of prison and fought to get his two biological children out of foster care. He then helped his wife get clean.
Then, as a family, they fought to get the other two children out of foster care.
"My children wanted their sisters," he said. "I wanted my children to be happy."
Bland credits his friend, Cosa Smith, for helping him change his racist views. The two worked together shortly after Bland got out of prison.
It didn't take long for Bland and Smith, who is Colombian, to square off.
"I was just throwing around the n-word, and he’s a strong moral guy. He was not going to let that stand," Bland said. "It was hard for me. I listened to what he had to say.
"(Racism) just really clouded everything. There was no room for me to grow. I was stuck and if anything, I was deteriorating ..."
"Today I am a man of God. I tithe. I help out anybody and everybody till it hurts," Bland said. "But I have these racist tattoos. I have these disgusting tattoos covering my body that show. There are other members of my church that are not white. They see these. They see me and my family together, so I hope they know I'm not racist. ... It's horrible."
Bland said Fleetwood's offer to cover up the tattoos at no cost "means the world" to him.
"It will mean I won't have to fully explain to my daughter how terrible a person I was," he said. "She will appreciate me for who I am today."