Artist’s ‘Sacred Transformations’ helps those with trouble pasts find a renewed life

Categories: Chicago Tribune

Former gang members, skinheads among those who have sought Eric Dean Spruth’s aid

The cluster of needles pricks his arm, shooting ink into the flesh. Angel sits in a South Side tattoo parlor, his arm extended for so long it becomes stiff and swollen, trying to undo a gang life he entered as a teenager but now rejects as a 27-year-old.

“Stings,” he says. “But nothing to be crying about.”

He returns weekly to let Eric Dean Spruth transform gang tattoos into the symbols Angel’s chosen for his new life—the flag of his home, Puerto Rico, and a sea horse, evocative of water but softer than a shark.

“Two kids, minimum-wage job, convicted felon. It’s tough,” Angel said, explaining his motivation.

Spruth, 43, runs Sacred Transformations, which helps people who have been scarred, burned and branded—including gunshot victims, abused women and former white supremacists or gang members—take back their lives.

A full-time art therapist, Spruth rejects the removal of tattoos as too easy, a sweeping of trouble under the rug.

Images of swastikas and satanism, often etched with crude instruments like paper clips or safety pins, can represent a surrender of the body and soul to sinister elements, Spruth says.

He sets clients on a path to confront their past and become free of it. They spend months working with volunteer artists and advocates to discover images they find inspiring and contemplating what they need to do to change.

The transformed tattoos represent the present and their commitment to a new life, he says.

“The tattoo is the least significant part of the process,” says Spruth. “I don’t believe in lobotomies. I believe in taking ownership in life.”

Yet taking care of the visible marks is practical as well as philosophical.

Gang symbols can make a person and his family targets of violence and may hinder job-hunting and other steps toward turning over a new leaf.

Spruth, who has a master’s degree in art therapy from the School of the Art Institute, started Sacred Transformations three years ago. He and volunteer artists meet with potential new clients weekly in an undisclosed location in Chinatown. Clients, who pay nothing for the services, show up through word of mouth—from a parole officer, a drug treatment counselor, a public defender.

Spruth’s plan was to give the organization 10 years to become self-sustaining. So far, he believes he has proved there is a need, with 450 applicants since July 2008. Some were rejected, and some are waiting.

In conversation, Spruth can sound like a roadside preacher or a politician on the stump, but he says he holds to no specific dogma.

“I believe there are many paths to a happy life,” he says.

The seed to start Sacred Transformations was planted, Spruth said, when he dreamed about his grandfather, who was on his deathbed. “We all make marks in the world; some people make a mark then spend all their life trying to erase it, others make a mark and others spend their life trying to duplicate it,” he recalls his grandfather saying in the dream.

Spruth thought about marks, which led him to tattoos, although at the time he had no idea how to ink, he says. Serendipity brought him to the owner of a tattoo parlor who listened to Spruth explain his dream. The man agreed to teach Spruth how to tattoo and to make his shop available for the program.

He had little trouble finding volunteer artists. Many are intrigued with tattooing and find having their designs become a permanent part of someone’s life to be a profound experience.

Painter and illustrator Julia Rooney, who worked with Angel on his sea horse, says the work made her re-evaluate the artist’s role.

“Being an artist can be self-serving,” she says. “By designing tattoos for people, I’m still getting my work out there, but it’s a more rewarding experience. It’s not like I’m showing my work in a gallery. I’m impacting somebody’s life by having my work on them.”

Denise Colletti , an art therapist who serves on the board of Sacred Transformations, found herself challenged by the dark images of some tattoos and learned to perceive them for their aesthetic, not their meaning. Colletti said she helped one client transform a swastika into a mermaid.

“When my artist glasses are on, I’m looking at graphic lines, I’m looking at light and shade, I’m looking at composition and I’m solving a problem, so I don’t feel like in any way I’m assaulted by any image,” she says.

Angel, who asked that his last name and former gang affiliation not be used, is keeping two of his tattoos: his mother’s name, Marta, and her hometown, Coamo.

Her death—of a drug overdose or pneumonia; Angel says he isn’t sure which—left him sad, he says, and with an excuse to experiment with drugs and alcohol. Then came a heroin addiction and repeated jail time.

“I’m not proud of it,” he said. “I didn’t want to be good. And I was a very smart kid.”

After the sea horse is completed, Angel goes outside for a cigarette before heading to work third shift at a suburban printing company. He says his most recent time in jail—he was released last May—will be his last.

He wants to change his life so his 4-year-old son won’t imitate his mistakes.

“I’ve never been so responsible in my life,” he said.

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