Transforming the past through ink

By Contributing Writer

By Sophia Coleman, Contributing Writer

An abusive ex-lover’s name tattooed on one’s skin becomes hidden under a wreath of exotic lilies on the lower back of a young woman. An ornate black and white seahorse effortlessly covers the name of a violent gang. Splotchy, discolored burns on the leg of a woman are transformed into a beautiful garden of purple flowers.

Scars may appear to last forever, but with the help of a free Chicago-based program called Sacred Transformations, people now have the ability to transform their unwanted marks into gorgeous works of art.

These reworked tattoos are some of what Eric Dean Spruth, 45, founder of Sacred Transformations, has done for clients across Chicago. Through his organization, he has helped people recover from various negative experiences, such as gang-affiliations and serious burns by transforming their marks into positive imagery.

The program is funded by donations and out of Spruth’s own income.

“As an art therapist, I have seen and witnessed the challenges of thousands of fellow human beings at some of the most difficult crossroads of their lives,” Spruth said. “[They were] literally marked by scars, tattoos and burns—but more importantly, marked within their minds, spirits and perception of themselves.”

Spruth’s idea of facilitating a free program to address the needs of those looking for transformation began in 1992 while he was earning a master’s degree in art therapy at the school of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The idea developed further through his work as an art therapist in the Cook County jail system at the Cermak Health Services Hospital, 2800 S. California Ave. In 2006, Sacred Transformations was formed with the help of Spruth’s wife Sara and “an army of volunteers,” as he called it.

“Our network of volunteers runs the gamut from recently incarcerated individuals to the highly notable law firm of Meyer Brown,” said Sara Spruth, who is also secretary of Sacred Transformations, as well as co-founder.

The organization isn’t anything like a typical tattoo parlor. In fact, it isn’t actually a parlor at all. It operates out of a P.O. box in Chinatown and is expanded by the use of public and private spaces. This way, it can reach all of the Chicago area instead of serving one particular neighborhood. The client must find the address of the P.O. box through Spruth’s website or through a friend of a friend, and then he or she sends his or her application through the mail. Once a client is confirmed, a meeting place is designated in close proximity to the client. The places where they meet range from willing tattoo shops to office spaces donated by volunteers. Once a site is chosen, the first step of the transformation process begins.

“For some of our clients, a trip across town can be a life-threatening experience and for others it’s not possible because of lack of child care,” Sara said.

South Side Tattoo is one out of the handful of parlors that aid Sacred Transformations. On occasion, an artist from South Side Tattoo will volunteer his or her time to work on one of the clients, but usually it is the steady hand of Eric etching needle into skin.

Spruth is quick to point out that the service is free, but that doesn’t mean it will come easy. Applicants must write a five-page essay describing why they have the tattoo or scar they have, what they want done with it and where they see themselves in the future. This is the first step in the self-reflective process that consists of short and long-term goals related to the desired tattoo as well as the client’s life in general.

Once the applicant is accepted and the initial goals are set, he or she meets with Denise Colletti, art therapist and director of transformative designs, and a group of volunteer artists. There, the client takes the role of the boss and expresses what he or she wants to evoke through the reconfiguration of their existing tattoo or scar.

“Some people move through it very quickly,” Colletti said. “They are self-motivated and self-directed, so the process goes fast. Others aren’t used to making deliberate decisions for themselves and have lived their lives with someone holding power over them, so it can take months,” Colletti said.

Angela Grujicic, a client of Eric’s, expressed through a short film on the Sacred Transformations website how her life turned around through the program. While the initial remake of the tattoo took two days, the whole process took weeks.

“Ultimately, I have had a negative mark from a chapter of my life put on my body that has been sacredly transformed to my true roots,” Grujicic said.

Years ago, Grujicic was in an abusive relationship where her partner controlled every aspect of her life and as a result, she let him tattoo his name on her lower back. She left him, but the mark on her back remained. It constantly reminded her of the negativity she experienced, and it made it difficult for her to find a healthy relationship. Then in June 2009 she met Eric, who she calls her “savior.”

She went through a series of meetings in which Eric and his team determined what her potential tattoo could be. Eventually she settled on a trio of orange tiger lilies in memory of her aunt who had also dealt with negative relationships. The transformation she went through was a form of deep therapy she recommends to others in similar situations.

“I have seen and spoken to people with regretted tattoos, scars and burns,” Grujicic said. “They are not happy, they are not proud, they are not spiritually evolved—but Sacred Transformations takes valued time and much needed money away from themselves and their families with the sole intention of helping others.” Sacred Transformations has produced approximately 100 tattoos since starting in 2006, but the organization doesn’t solely measure its success through the body art it designs. For Spruth and his team, the real reward is seeing these people turn their lives around. Through therapy meetings with Sacred Transformations, clients have gained the courage to obtain state IDs, library cards and other tools necessary to move forward in society.

“The time spent at the meetings,in addition to the actual tattoo, help the client take the time to realize that they have great potential,” Spruth said.

The organization receives roughly 25 applications per month and all of them are accepted. As the program expands,it plans to help every applicant. Though it can be difficult at times to raise enough money to rework every tattoo, Spruth and his organization make every effort to transform every individual.

“We do need funding,” Spruth said. “Any and all donations are welcome—no matter how small or large—every little bit helps,” Eric said. “Whether that is giving up a coffee once a week, a pizza once a month—it’s all needed and appreciated.”

Spruth is also starting to offer custom work as a tattoo artist to aid the program and help raise much needed funds.

“Sacred Transformations is not a business, it’s a way of life and a charitable organization,” Spruth said. “I want to help people who need help. I want to help people who wouldn’t spend their money to change a tattoo but instead use it to buy milk for their kids.”