About Face: Ex-Skinhead Endures 25 Surgeries to Remove Racist Tattoos

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Duke Tribble / MSNBC / AP

This combination of eight photos provided by Bill Brummel Productions shows the progress of tattoo removal treatments for former skinhead Bryon Widner

With his face and body blighted by symbols of hate, Bryon Widner struggled to escape his past. But salvation came— from the very people he once tormented.

Widner’s story of reform, told in gripping detail by the Associated Press, began in 2006 after he married his wife, Julie. She was a was a member of the National Alliance, the white separatist political organization, and he had helped found the Vindlanders, a skinhead group notorious for having members with long criminal records. After marrying, they withdrew from the white power movement, had a baby and hoped to start over. But the swastikas and razor blades etched on Widner’s face cast a long shadow over his efforts: neighbors shunned him and potential employers balked when they saw the letters H-A-T-E tattooed on his knuckles.

The social isolation slowly took its toll, and Widner grew frenzied as he searched the Internet for solutions. As the AP reports, the couple had little money and no health insurance, and few doctors performed the complicated surgeries necessary to undo the extensive markings. “I was totally prepared to douse my face in acid,” he said.

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With her husband desperate for help, Julie made the bold move of contacting Daryle Lamont Jenkins, the founder of Philadelphia-based One People’s Project. His anti-hate group publishes the names and addresses of white supremacists, and publicizes white power demonstrations so that activists can stage counter-demonstrations. Jenkins didn’t turn his back on Widner, even if he was a notorious hate monger. “It didn’t matter who she had once been or what she had once believed,” he told the AP. “Here was a wife and mother prepared to do anything for her family.”

Jenkins’ suggestions eventually led Widner to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the civil rights law firm. Widner provided the firm with sensitive information about how specific skinhead groups operate and details about their internal structure. He also spoke at their Skinhead Intelligence Network conference, equipping police with knowledge to help them tackle white supremacist groups. In exchange the SPLC searched—and ultimately found—a donor to pay for Widner’s surgery.

From June 2009 until October 2010, Widner underwent 25 painful procedures at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. Each procedure left him with a bruised and blistered face that took weeks to heal.  “I have to do it,” he remembers saying at the time. “I am never going to live a normal life unless I do.”

Even now, though, normalcy remains somewhat elusive: the Widners face retribution from skinhead groups for leaving the movement, and only a small number of friends and family can know where they live. Erasing those tattoos was tough, but erasing the past might prove to be impossible.

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William Lee Adams is a staff writer at the London bureau of TIME. Find him on Twitter at @willyleeadams or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.