Nate Greer takes a smoke break outside Sickside Tattoo Studio in Horn Lake, Mississippi. Photograph: Melissa Golden/The Guardian

At Sickside Tattoo Studio in Mississippi, reformed gang members and white supremacists such as TM Garret seek free cover-ups for ink from their pasts

A mid the shrill buzzing of a tattoo gun, Nathan Greer squeezes his eyes shut and lets out a low, rumbling groan. In this small, purple room in the back of a tattoo shop just south of Memphis, Tennessee, the 33-year-old former white supremacist has come seeking a fresh start.

Under the painful strokes of a vibrating needle, the outline of a large swastika on Greer’s chest is gradually obscured. A tattoo artist leans over him, drawing an oval outline of a gas-masked skull on the right side of his chest.

Another former white supremacist, an older German man known as TM Garret, watches from the door frame, tattooed arms crossed over his chest. During the past year, he has helped arrange for more than 100 tattoo cover-ups like this. “Erasing the hate can be painful sometimes,” Garret says, smiling softly at Greer. “You’re doing great.”

Our US Partner TM Garret watches as tattoo artist Trevor Curbo works on a cover-up of the swastika on Nate Greer’s chest. Photograph: Melissa Golden/Redux/The Guardian

Here at Sickside Tattoo Studio in Horn Lake, Mississippi, just south of the Tennessee border, reformed gang members and white supremacists travel from throughout the south-east US seeking free cover-ups. The program is part of Garret’s Erase the Hate campaign, and Sickside is one of a few tattoo shops in the country that participates.

On this particular day, Greer has traveled from rural Arkansas with his friend, who also receives a cover-up: a demonic-looking figure traced over a thick, shaded-in swastika, and a skull on either shoulder to hide identical SS bolts, a reference to Hitler’s Nazi army.

Most often, the tattoos covered up are swastikas and SS bolts, Garret explains. Other times they’re gang symbols, portraits of Hitler, or words such as “skinhead” or “Aryan”. The men using this service – referred to as “formers” – are an even mix of reformed gang members and white supremacists. But he’s open to helping “any kind of former from an extremist group”, he says. “They could be from Isis, it really doesn’t matter. The struggle with hate is still the same.”

‘I was the Nazi kid’

The outline of Nate Greer’s cover-up tattoo is finished. Photograph: Melissa Golden/The Guardian

From leading a small chapter of the Ku Klux Klan to hosting public forums on the dangers of racism, Garret’s story of leaving white nationalism and becoming a human rights activist is, literally, etched into his skin.

On his upper left arm, where the word “skinhead” was previously displayed in gothic letters, is a solid black banner. Lower down are the lasered-off remnants of a Celtic cross, a ubiquitous symbol of white supremacy. His left elbow, once covered with a large, patchy spiderweb, now features a sun emerging from a pool of water – a testament, Garret says, “to the darkness and the light of my journey”.