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Oswego's Ink 180 Documentary Wins Emmy Awards

Nov 09, 2015 08:46PM ● By Shannon Antinori

Chris Baker covers a customer's tattoo in a scene from the "INK 180" documentary. Photo courtesy of FOUR:2 Media.

Chris Baker’s job isn’t glamorous.

The Oswego tattoo artist spends much of his time volunteering his services, offering free tattoo removal and covering up painful reminders of the past for sex trafficking survivors, domestic violence victims, former gang members and those who bear the marks left behind by addiction and self-harm.

But on Saturday, Chris and his wife, Lisa Baker, found themselves in the limelight as “INK 180,” a documentary about Baker’s tattoo ministry, won three Chicago Emmy awards.

Named for Baker’s Oswego tattoo shop, the film received Best Documentary, Best Directing and Best Editing awards from the Chicago/Midwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

“It was a cool validation that people are interested in what we’re doing,” said Baker, who worked as a tattoo artist for more than a decade before launching INK 180 in 2011.

Baker said he started the ministry as a way to help other people turn their lives around after going through a change of his own.

“I became a Christian,” he said. “I was looking for ways to be a better person.”

These days, Baker works with local law enforcement, domestic violence intervention agencies, the FBI and even the Department of Homeland Security, using his talents to cover up gang-related tattoos and the branding that marks survivors of sex trafficking. He does it all at no cost to clients.

Telling clients’ stories

Executive producer Greg Bogdan approached Baker about making the “INK 180” documentary after hearing him speak at Big Life Community Church in Oswego.  

“As soon as he spoke, I thought, ‘He’d make a great interview,’” said Bogdan. But after speaking with Baker a bit more, “I realized there were bigger stories to tell,” he said.

Bogdan and producer/director Joel Mains wanted to tell the stories of INK 180’s clients.

Initially, Baker said he was hesitant to get involved in the film, saying he worried it would further exploit his customers. After more discussion with Bogdan and Mains, Baker said he agreed to come on board, on one condition.

“That this is really about my clients,” he said, adding he wanted the documentary to show how his clients are changing their lives.

“I’m so sick of people … saying, ‘Why do you help those people?,’” particularly when it comes to his efforts to help former gang members erase reminders of their pasts, Baker said. “We’re all the same. Some of us have made bad choices, but we don’t need to be defined by that.”

Filming the documentary took the better part of a year. Some clients feared retribution from gangs if they told their stories, Mains said, while others were hesitant to relive their painful pasts.

“It’s an incredibly vulnerable place for these people,” he said. “We really tried to humanize their situations.”

The documentary’s revelations about sex trafficking are particularly eye-opening, Mains added.

When he first began the INK 180 Ministry, “I had no idea this was going on,” Baker said. “I thought it was one of those ‘over there’ problems” in foreign countries — not something that happened in the Chicago suburbs.

“The vast majority is young boys and girls, the average age is 12 to 14 years old, and they are courted and manipulated by sex traffickers,” before being delivered to customers via websites, Mains said. “It’s just terrifying.”

“INK 180” premiered on Total Living Network (TLN) in September 2014.

“When it was televised initially, I didn’t even get to see it because I didn’t have Comcast,” Baker said. Since then, other organizations have hosted screenings for the film.

Mains said TLN will air “INK 180” again at 9 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 24, and possible partnerships are in the works for wider distribution and additional screenings of the film. TLN airs on Comcast Xfinity Channel 138.

Also during Thanksgiving weekend, all proceeds from “INK 180” DVD sales will benefit Baker’s non-profit ministry. The DVD is available on the "INK 180" documentary website.