The Frighteners - The Scary Guy

Published: 22 August, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 202, August, 2011

On paper, the concept is sheer folly. “Hey, what if we sent a guy who was tattooed to the extreme into primary and secondary schools to teach them what life was really about?” Ironically, in practice, it’s sheer genius and the most fun I’ve had in months. Join me as we cruise the mean streets of the UK with The Scary Guy...

As is always the way with great material, my run-in with the modern day philosopher, The Scary Guy, came about completely by chance. It was such a random chain of events that had nothing to do with tattooing that it’s not even worth mentioning. The important thing in all of this was that the pennies dropped fast and hard as to what he was all about – and I’ll say right up front here, I take off my hat to you Sir. Not only for being a man of conviction, but for taking those convictions to the streets in a totally unique fashion. 

I’ve thought long and hard about whether or not to explain exactly what it is that Scary Guy does and I’ve decided not to. Better that you check out the boxed copy that runs through the article and watch some clips instead. They will have more impact than a few hundred well chosen words ever could.

I guess if you’re not used to tattoos, or your experience is fleeting, it is a shocker to have this big guy come into your environment, but even to those of us who dive in and out of it all day long, when you come across facial tattoos, it still gives you pause for thought, but let’s start the story at the beginning:

“I was 30 when I got my first tattoo, which probably seems crazy these days. Way back, I was a vocal performance major and I always thought I’d end up being a singer, but somehow I ended up as a baby portrait photographer and then I became a computer salesman. It was a good life. I got on at the right time and managed to make some really decent money and that was when I started collecting tattoos. Actually, when I look back on it now, it was quite a magical time.

“My first one was a dragon on my left bicep, maybe about three inches tall. I stopped by at this studio in Tucson, Arizona and was amazed by all the flashwork they had going on in there, totally fell in love with it. So the dragon got done, and the guy says to me, ‘I got good news and bad news for you. That won’t be the last....’

“So I get home and I’m checking myself out in the mirror and I figured it looked a little unbalanced, so the next day I went back and I got a tiger on my other bicep. Get home and I do the same again, only this time, I figure my chest is looking a little bare. So I went back the next day and got a panther put on it. I thought that was unbalanced as well, so the very next day, I went back again and got a bigger dragon put on my back – this one was maybe 12 inches tall. That’s how it started. Four tattoos in four days.”

Now here’s where the curveballs start to come in. We can all understand the need for more ink after the first one, maybe we can even comprehend the need for balance, bigger and better, but as to what happened next, well...

“I decided that this was definitely the ‘thing’ for me and after a lot of searching, I struck up a relationship with Suzanne Fauser who was out in Michigan at the time. Now, at the time I was still a computer salesman, so two things were going on here. The first was that she did a total custom job on me, no flash. That was a new thing for me. I was collecting tattoos at a really fast rate. I would work my job in the week and as soon as I was done for the week, I would jump on a jet and get out there to have more work done and what I didn’t realise at the time was how much I was soaking up and learning from her.

“The second thing that happened around this time was that I had to go to this company picnic one day. Now, it’s one thing to know or suspect that somebody has tattoos, but it’s another thing to see them in the flesh. We’re talking mid-1980's here, so tattoos are still in the domain of ‘outsiders’ if you like. I turned up in shorts and a tee with them all on display – also bear in mind here, these were people I loved and had trusted for a long time, I thought they’d get a real kick out of it - but their attitude about me changed right there and then on the spot. Every single one of them. I didn’t get it at the time, but it was never about me, it was about them.

“I figured if this was what was going on inside people’s heads, it was time to get out of corporate America. I didn’t want anything else to do with it, so I went out and got myself a tattoo on my neck so that I couldn’t go back to work. I figured I’d find something to do. A little while later, a friend calls me up and says he has this awesome job for me – all I had to do was say the word. So I told him I had got my neck tattooed and he lost it. Man, he lost it. ‘You stupid son of a bitch... what’s gotten into you...’. That kind of thing.”

...and right here, for all intents and purposes, is where a reasonably regular life begins to morph itself into something else entirely. 

“I had my own studio open by now and I was making a decent living out of tattooing. It was a good life you know. Along the way, I got a little bar tattooed on the side of my face just by my ear. It was nothing pre-meditated. To me it was just a mark, but this one time, I was out at some convention and the guy who was hosting it pulls me to one side and says ‘Hey, you know the rules. No tattoos on the hands, neck or face’.

“OK, so we’re going back a few years here and the guy is a real old-timer, but my reaction at the time was that I had just left that environment. I had come to this one where a man could express himself however he wanted and here’s this guy telling me what I can and can’t do? That was the last straw for me. That realisation that this seemingly cool world I had joined was just the same as corporate America, was a shocker.”

When you distill a whole life into half an hour, you really get the sense of the gravity of certain situations as you skip through the years. At this point though, I’m still looking for the moment of impact – the one where the skies come crashing in and a man sees himself in the reality mirror for the first time – and here it comes...

“The way things work in life is that you’ve usually got to be on your deathbed before realisations like this kick in, but I was on an emotional deathbed. If you’re lucky in life, you’ll experience this as well. I was so low. You know, I thought I was a nice guy, I had three tattoo shops, ten artists working for me, a Harley, a mountain view out of the window... life was good but then one day, another tattooer from town ran an advert that said ‘Are you tired of getting tattooed by scary guys with warpaint facial tattoos...’

“I knew he was talking about me. I ran my mouth and thought about running down his dog over it, but I didn’t, truly believing I was this really good guy and that my shit didn’t stink. The next thing I know, it dawns on me like lightning that I’ve just been lying to myself. There was all this hate and anger at the world inside of me and basically, I decided I didn’t want it anymore. First I had to fix myself. Your problems with me are not my problems – that’s the first thing to learn. I don’t need to carry your baggage around as well as my own. You get the picture... so I went into my shop and told the guys I was leaving. I sold my shops and everything I own and figured I’d just do whatever I had to do to get by.

“That was 13 years ago.”

I’ve hung out here long enough to know that none of this has to do with religion. Not a scrap of it. That’s not how it works, but I’m inclined to think that if these lightning bolt revelations happened to me, that would probably be my first port of call. You would at least have to question it in passing, wouldn’t you?

“I have never used the word ‘religion’ or ‘God’ in any of my shows – and I have talked in front of Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus – nor will I, but there was a moment or two when I thought to myself ‘is something working through me here?’ Yeah, it crossed my mind for sure but that’s all it did. Too many of the things that are wrong with the world stem from that place. Again, their problems are not my problems or yours. Each man, woman and child on this planet must look within. If we could all set about fixing ourselves from the inside, learn how to process what we put inside of ourselves that’s served up by other people... well, that’s where it starts.

“A few times, after I’ve done a show for a religious group, I’ve been asked ‘when did you accept Jesus Christ as your saviour?’ My standard reply is: ‘Would you still love me if I told you I haven’t?’ – then people start to see the tattoos on my face again. Again, the problem is theirs, not mine. It’s going to be a big learning curve for people.

“Actually, that reminds me of a letter I got from a guy who I had spoken in front of ten years ago, so he’s now 28. I was doing my thing at a high school in Colorado. Liberty High School to be exact. I was maybe doing this two or three days a week back then. Anyway, ten years later I get a letter from this kid who was in the gymnasium at the school listening to me saying ‘... that day, I really blew you off. Today, I’m in a little town in Wyoming and the hate, the bitching, the gossip in this town has gone way out of control. I remember everything you said, so I’m going to stick around and do something about it.’ How cool is that?”

Scary Guy tends to have this effect. Some of the boxed copy in this article will link you to some of the talks he’s done at schools in the UK and, regardless of your opinion on it, you can see the truth cut through the kids listening. He’s good at this. People listen. People listen so well that the tattoos disappear. Fast. They come back later for sure, but for those moments when he’s in the groove, they are looking at a man with a decent message not a tattoo. For some of those kids, that will be the only decent message they have ever gotten or are likely to. It doesn’t stop at kids either. The plan is to get to as many people as fast as possible”

“I speak at military academy’s too. 2,000 Air Force Cadets at the US Air Force Academy. Done that. Some people have asked how I can justify it when these people are sent out to kill people, but I can’t stop a war. What I can do is help people understand how to make changes for themselves one person at a time. What they do has nothing to do with their personal lives. They have the same problems as everybody else outside of work. Hate, bullying, violence, people putting you down. The bigger issue of war isn’t the problem – we’ve been killing each other since day one. The  root problems all stem from inside. Outside your house is a war too. People need to figure this stuff out and get a grip on how we’re all busy hurting each other and it doesn’t need to be that way.”

And so the quest continues. Like I said earlier, go watch the video clips and then come back and read the article again. That’s all. As this man used to sign off his editorial’s a long time ago... “Be Cool To Each Other.”

Check This Out (I)

Your first port of call for all things Scary, should be here:

First, check in at the Teacher’s TV - Scary Does Parents tab. We’ve all been kids, I wouldn’t even like to guess at how many of us are parents these days, but an educated guess allows me to confidently say ‘a lot of us’. Anyway, capturing this tiny microcosm of the world of parents and kids is fascinating. After all, parents are most often little more than the same people they were at 10 years old,  now in bigger bodies, ill equipped to deal with most things like this, we (yeah, self included) kind of learn to deal with life’s little mysteries as they crop up. 

What’s interesting about that clip in particular is that the parents aren’t seeing the tattoos at all, and haven’t been for quite some time. As Scary himself would probably tell you, as he was walking out of the door and saying goodbye, the tattoos probably came back, but that, for me, is a priceless snippet of TV that should have a wider audience than being squirreled away on Teachers TV (whatever that is!)

Check This Out (II)

Next, roll over to the Teachers TV – Inspirations tab. This one’s a clip of a talk at a Secondary School. There are way too many stories of bullying going too far that end in suicide for kids on the sharp end of the stick. What you’ve got here, at the bottom line, is a guy who used to be a tattooist who knows how people work and isn’t afraid to tell these kids exactly how he used to be. For my money, Scary should be a compulsory course for all teachers coming into the game. Why? Because every single one of those kids is actually listening and hearing... Priceless.

Check This Out (III)

Finally, get into the Teachers TV - Scary Does Primary tab. I know for a fact that there’s more than a fair few readers out there who are hiding their tats under their teacher-garb, and I’m thinking to myself, even if just a few of you watch it and take the message into school, my part in this extraordinary project is done. Hell, you don’t even have to be a teacher, the rules are the same whatever/whoever you are...


Text: Sion Smith; Photography: Dirk Behlau