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Tattoo artist Eric Dean Spruth donates -- and generates -- a lot of ink.

An art therapist at Cook County Jail, Spruth runs Sacred Transformations, a free program he launched in 2006 to aid people "tattooed, scarred, branded and/or burnt from negative experiences." His mission: To revamp gang tattoos and tramp stamps into badges of honor.

As the pony-tailed Illiana resident puts it, "I'm free, but I'm not easy."

Clients must prove their commitment to a new life and skin. Applicants must fill out a five-page form, map out goals, and brainstorm with volunteer artists. The goal is not to erase a swastika, but reshape it into a symbol of inspiration.

The body art takes a few hours; the preliminary soul-searching, six to eight months.

Spruth earned a master's in art therapy from the School of the Art Institute in 1992 before training as an ink-slinger. The born networker, 44, credits "an army of volunteers" for helping him run his Chinatown-based service, newly relocated to Miller in Gary. Miller Beach Ink, 508 S. Lake St., houses a tattoo studio as well as Sacred Transformations.

Q. What inspired you to found Sacred Transformations?

A. I had a vision of my [dying] grandfather ... I loved to read about art and history, and the idea of different societies taking ownership of their bodies ... In my daydream, he was big and plump, a big guy sitting in the bed. He said to me, in the vision, "Eric, we all make a mark in the world. Some people will make a mark and others will spend their whole lifetimes trying to duplicate that mark and celebrate it. And other people will make a mark in their life and devote their whole life to trying to erase it, out of a sense of shame. I'm happy with the marks I've made in my life and I'm ready to move on." At the time, I really felt like it was a signal.

Q. How big is the staff?

A. I'm it. I'm the only official staff person at Sacred Transformations and it is an unpaid job. I am the founder and executive director of the program, and, at this time, the only transformative tattooist.

Q. Say I fill out an application. What happens next?

A. We would meet, we would converse. I would ask you what you'd like to have. What are your interests? I would consider your short- and long-term goals on the application. I would ask questions like, "What are you doing right now, in the direction of accomplishing those goals? What are your three main goals after your transformation is complete?" ... I would hope some part of this new marking would relate to short-term and long-term goals in your life in addition to your interests.

Q. You don't erase or cover the tattoo?

A. We develop a custom design that strives to incorporate your existing mark, be it a scar, tattoo or burn. We painstakingly incorporate all the lines into your new piece. A transformation respects the fact that something was there, whether it was negative or positive. At some point in their life, [the client's] affiliation with different people, places and things may have been a positive point. But we all have the right to evolve. When you're marked for life, you're marked for life. You may evolve away from that marking -- in a way that's respectful -- but it no longer represents you. That's our clients.

Q. How long does the average tattoo take?

A. It varies. There's a fellow coming down from Milwaukee, his name is Bobby, and he has a history of struggling with heroin addiction. What we're working with are existing scars from his substance abuse. I probably could have got it done real quick. We've been working 2-1/2 years on this piece. He's getting the Seven Deadly Sins, represented as sexy women, from the hips up. They're beautiful women, but each one represents a sin. For him, it's a visual reminder of his own self-corruption. We're doing a full sleeve. They're beautiful, they're fun to look at. People walk up to him all the time and say, "What's this?" and he's got an amazing story to tell ... Bigger and dark [tattoos], that's a cover-up. It can be done. That takes an hour. That's not what we do here.

Q. Who funds your program?

A. We do. My wife and I.

Q. Why relocate to Gary?

A. I see Gary -- as our mayor would say -- where great things are happening. I really believe in this city and all the people of the city, working so hard to maintain the beautiful things that still exist and have existed, plus new visions like urban farming ... I've never been in a place like Gary, Indiana. The people don't talk the talk, they walk the walk.