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Removing the marks of a troubled past

Michelle Theriault Boots

Last winter, Mikel Sawyer, 29, was living in a jail cell when he heard a close friend had been shot and killed in an encounter with Anchorage police. Raised in Southern California, Sawyer had been in and out of juvenile facilities and jail since he was 14.

After running from charges in California, he'd ended up in Alaska. Here, he got into more trouble for theft while addicted to alcohol and methamphetamine. After news of the death, grief and rage consumed him. He couldn't see outside of it, and he wanted to send a message to the world.

So he let another inmate tattoo him using a sewing needle and ink improvised from soot and toothpaste.

Sawyer got his friend's name, the date of his death and, across his throat in bold letters, the words "Kill Cops."

"I thought my life was just going to be jails, doing drugs, drinking, crime," he said recently. "I thought I was born that way."

But when Sawyer was later released from jail, he found the Salvation Army, Alcoholics Anonymous and God.

Sawyer, who today comes off as polite and reflective, got sober with the help of a growing network through the Salvation Army's rehabilitation program. He attended daily AA meetings.

For the first time, a different kind of life seemed possible.

"I found something that made me happy. That changed me," he said. "I never thought I'd be happy."

Even his longtime probation officer Lana Grist, a down-to-earth veteran of the department who has seen many -- including Sawyer -- relapse and return to jail, believed this time was different.

"You know, after years of doing this, I always saw something special," she said. "I always thought that someday Mikel would make it."

There was a problem: Sawyer was saddled with a toxic statement marking his body in an especially visible way.

"Even when he was in treatment, he wasn't allowed to work at the front desk because of it," said Grist. " 'Kill Cops' is not a very pro-social thing."

But Grist thought she might know someone who could cover it.

Jeremy Wright is another parolee among the caseload of more than 100 felons Grist supervises. He spent 11 years in prison for second-degree murder. Over that time, he poured his creative energy into tattooing.

Wright, who at 39 looks younger than the grandfather he is, says he is thankful for the opportunities he's been given outside jail. He is a graduate of the same Salvation Army recovery program in which Sawyer is involved.

"I want Mikel to succeed," he said.

According to Daily News reports from the time, Wright was 17 in 1993 when he stabbed another young man to death while the two were on their way to buy marijuana in Sutton. He was charged as an adult.

Wright said he doesn't want to talk about his crime out of respect for family members of his victim still living in the Anchorage area. "I've gone to God with it," he said.

During his years in prison, Wright spent time studying tattoo art and learning from other inmates. "Prison is the only place I've found -- other than like, a monk monastery -- that you can dedicate all your time to learning," Wright said.

Using tattoo "rigs" made from sharpened instruments and working with makeshift ink, he tattooed weeping clowns and girlfriends' names on the skin of other prisoners, but he refused to draw gang affiliations. Cover-up jobs were one of the most common requests.

The tattoos had to be done in the darkest corners, out of sight of guards. He says he spent some time in solitary as punishment for being caught.

For Wright, the skill he learned in prison became his livelihood on the outside.

When he was released on parole in 2004, he turned his underground art into a gig as a licensed tattoo artist.

But Wright, like Sawyer, became an addict and cycled in and out of jail again and again.

Wright will celebrate one year of sobriety in August, he said.

In April, both Sawyer and Wright were out of jail and sober. Sawyer was ready to take the words off his neck.

People get tattooed in jail for different reasons, Sawyer said. Sometimes it is to create art in an ugly place. Other times body art serves as a protective shield. Sawyer acquired all of the ink that covers his arms, chest and skull while in jail.

"I had to have this persona that I'm tough so I couldn't get taken advantage of," he said.

In that regard, his neck tattoo served its purpose.

"If someone sees 'Kill Cops' on me, they're not going to mess with me," he said.

But he doesn't need that kind of protection any more.

Wright, Sawyer and Grist went to a Wasilla tattoo shop called Studio 574 on April 4. Grist documented the process with her digital camera. An exception was made for the usual probation rule that disallows felons from associating with other felons.

Sawyer decided to cover "Kill Cops" with angel wings, a gentler tribute to his friend.

"I got enough skulls and demons on me," he said.

The tattoo cover-up job took about four hours. It would have cost $400-$500, but Wright did it for free.

In the future, Sawyer says he wants to become a heavy equipment operator. At the probation office recently, he was dapper and in a tie and dress shirt.

He says he'd like to start a family and open a small business. Eventually he hopes to be an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, guiding others down the same road he's on. Sobriety takes his total focus every day. He has been sober for five months.

He's 29 years old but feels like a child, he said, outside of the daily routines of incarceration that have shaped many years of his life.

But at least one burden, the one around his neck, is gone.

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.


By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS
mtheriault@adn.com