Scary Guy wants to tattoo tolerance message on teens

OMAHA, Neb. (JTA) — The crowd of 350 high school students and teachers had just settled back into their seats after watching a 20-minute video on tolerance, produced by the Anti-Defamation League for their annual Prejudice Elimination Workshop.

The lights went up in the darkened theater at the Jewish Community Center and onstage stood "The Scary Guy."

There was an audible gasp as this fearsome-looking man looked right into their eyes. The Scary Guy — that's his real name, legally changed in February — is covered in colorful tattoos over 85 percent of his body.

His earlobes, eyebrows and the bridge of his nose are all pierced as well.

"I wouldn't want to meet him in a dark alley" is the first reaction he receives from most people.

Yet his message is one of kindness, hope, courage and tolerance.

The Scary Guy, who owns two tattoo shops in Tucson, Ariz., says he "just got sick of the name-calling and slander" and told his wife, Julie, to pack his bags because he was "going on the road for the rest of [his] life to make a difference."

For his beliefs, The Scary Guy has been angrily told by the Ku Klux Klan that he is a "white man who sold out."

The Scary Guy believes that he has offended many of these white males and others because "you can't put me in a box," he said.

"I can't be pigeonholed by race or gender or ethnicity or religion or sexual orientation.

"I've created my own category," he said with a smile, "and that's what's frightens people. They can't categorize me and they don't know where I fit."

Already, Scary, as he is affectionately called by those who know him, has spoken to more than 600,000 people, but the prejudice workshop was the first appearance for the ADL.

He wants people, especially teenagers, to understand that they have a right to be loved, to express themselves, to freedom, but to recognize a different way of dealing with anger and fear.

"It took me years to figure that out," The Scary Guy said in an interview. "And it culminated in an early morning firebombing at one of my tattoo shops in Tucson.

"I stood there, watching the flames, and realized there was nothing I could do."

This moment of self-discovery brought Scary to understand that "what you give out is what you get."

Now his philosophy is, "If I have something you want, I will give it. It's about sharing," he said.

It's no accident that it was the ADL who sponsored The Scary Guy's appearance here.

Leigh-Anne Brown, a student at the University of Arizona and daughter of Debbi Brown, assistant ADL director, literally ran into The Scary Guy at the airport in Tucson. As a school photographer, she had met The Scary Guy while on assignment for the university's daily paper.

She told her mother, "The Scary Guy is about everything you are in terms of diversity, tolerance and justice" and was insistent her parents meet him. While speaking to him in the airport, the family recognized the potential of Scary's message.

According to Debbi Brown, "The students' evaluation forms reflected the positive feelings they had for him and his message," which is "never reject anyone for the way he or she looks."

He has been asked to run for public office and, after the recent win in the gubernatorial race by former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura in Minnesota, Scary is now contemplating the possibility in five to six years, but "only after speaking to millions of people."

Scary tells the story of the "100th monkey" to illustrate his educational style.

"One monkey teaches two, then two teach four and four teach eight. By the time the 100th monkey has learned the behavior, it has been ingrained in the community. When the `100th monkey' has learned to put aside the human nature to prejudge, I will run for office," he said.

Tattoos weren't always used to make a statement; 10 years ago, Scary was a computer salesman in the Twin Cities. Tattoos on his arms and legs were covered by three-piece suits when he met his future wife, Julie Kaufman. A big well-built man, Scary related how Kaufman reacted when she learned about the tattoos.

"I was wearing a long-sleeve white shirt and Julie complimented me on the `shimmering colors' of the silk," he recalled. "Then I rolled up my sleeves and showed her my tattooed arms."

Her reaction was one of fascination, not repulsion, and he knew they would have a future together. Today, she acts as manager, organizer, scheduler, publicist and his biggest fan.

Scary refers to his inner strength and to his mother's death five years ago as the reasons he sticks with his agenda.

He hopes that programs like the ADL's workshop expose issues that teens and adults might see as "hurtful" but encourages them to "have the courage to go there."