The Scary Guy didn’t plan to be an anti-hate speaker covered head-to-toe in tattoos, but that is unmistakably who he is. He travels the world speaking about discrimination and prejudice, and, having been discriminated against for his unusual appearance, he speaks from experience. Tattoos cover his entire face, neck, and head. He has bar piercings through the bridge of his nose. And he also happens to be one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.
I didn’t know what to expect when I scheduled an interview with him. Could I call him “Scary,” or would he demand to be called by his full title? Part of my nervousness probably stemmed from the fact that he looks very much like the type of guy your parents told you to avoid on the street. Before talking to him, I visited http://thescaryguy.com, which, yes, is his website. The site opens with a vibrant photo montage of Scary speaking at various events, shaking people’s hands, always smiling and laughing. In between clips, snippets of his message pop up in aggressive fonts accompanied by loud music: “outlawed in two U.S. cities,” “an agent for change,” “the NEW face of love.” The montage ends with the words “ignorance is not bliss” in large print. Its general message is somehow both loving and very aggressive. The website is elegant and well maintained, though its effect is somewhat dampened by numerous close-ups of Scary’s tattooed eyelids and piercings. In each shot, he either looks frightening or jolly—or, more often, both at the same time.
I called him at 8 a.m. in Colorado Springs—3 p.m. in Manchester, England, where he lives and works. He picked up my video call and explained that he was stuck in traffic, so we rescheduled. This first call lasted about 60 seconds, but by the end of it I felt that we were friends. He talked with me the way you might expect an old friend to talk with you. Twenty years ago he started a seven day challenge to not say a single negative thing about another human for a full week, and he’s continued that challenge since. (I’m glad to report he’s kept his track record clean in interactions with me.) Scary just assumes he’s going to be friends with everyone, and apparently, he is. And that’s saying a lot for a guy who is so physically threatening that, twenty years ago, people used cross to the other side of the street to avoid him. These days, people cross to his side of the street to get his autograph. That’s what happens when you’re relentlessly friendly toward everyone you meet for a couple decades.
Scary isn’t exactly nice in the polite, Midwestern way. He’s very direct and doesn’t waste any words on superfluous niceties. When he’s working with children, he never does that thing I remember hating as a child, where adults would raise the pitch of their voices to talk to me, as though I were a pet. He’s not the sickly saccharine type of nice. He’s just no-bullshit. He recognizes that every other human is as fully human as he is.
The power of Scary’s reputation for kindness really can’t be overstated. Schools used to not let him in at all, much less pay him to give speeches. Even after he had gained some clout from touring, he wasn’t allowed to speak in some schools because teachers were afraid that the children would want to be like him. But Scary says the change in attitude isn’t just due to his fame. He believes the world is slowly warming up to people who choose to express themselves differently.
Now that I was kind of friends with the colorful, ever-earnest man named Scary, I planned to find out how exactly he ended up where he is now: receiving $6,500 from schools to spend an hour yelling emphatically at their children about the importance of being kind. When he Skyped me from his living room, I noticed his walls were decorated with his and his wife’s artwork. (Scary has drawn and painted since childhood.) Throughout his early adulthood, Scary worked as a computer salesman. He didn’t get a single tattoo until he was 30. As soon as he did, though, he fell in love with how personal and expressive the art form was. On the first weekend he got a tattoo, he got another four.
He began living a full-on double life in his 30s and early 40s. He was a leather-clad, Harley-riding tattoo apprentice on the weekend, and a shirt-tucked-in computer salesman during the week. He got lots of tattoos from Suzanne Fauser, one of the few highly successful female tattoo artists around at the time. Through all of these sessions with Fauser, he learned her art without realizing he was learning it. When he went to the tattoo parlor, he found the same sort of release and self-expression that he had found in painting. In fact, he found tattooing an even more intimate art than painting because the tattoo artist’s canvas is skin itself. By the time Fauser had tattooed most of Scary’s body, they had developed a close friendship. He respected her as an artist and as a woman challenging the boundaries of a male-dominated industry. He saw that her love of the art form pushed her to break the gender norms and boundaries that restricted even such a freeing and creative industry.
Scary himself went on to push back against the norms of the tattooing industry. There is a tacit but strict rule in the tattooing community that one was not supposed to tattoo their face, neck, or hands. Every tattoo artist would persuade their customers that those areas were absolutely untouchable. So Scary proceeded to tattoo his face, neck, and hands. He had escaped into the tattoo community to be able to express himself and make his body look however he wanted, so he wasn’t about to be ordered around by restrictive rules.
Around the time Scary made that jump, he quit his job as a computer salesman and became fully rooted in the tattoo industry. He spent most of his 40s running three tattoo parlors in Tucson, Arizona, working on his art, and helping his clients express themselves on their own skin.
One morning, however, Scary opened the newspaper to an advertisement by one of his local competitors. The ad read, “Tired of working with scary guys with war-paint tattoos?” He says he slammed the paper down and, feeling something like a Disney villain, immediately started plotting his revenge. He knew the ad was aimed not only at his tattoo business, but also at his very mode of self-expression. Scary thought of running over the guy’s dog or enlisting the help of some of his buddies to strong-arm his competitor. The guy had wronged him first, Scary thought, so it was completely justified to hurt him back. (Scary had always thought of himself as a good guy—even if he had an unusual definition of “good.”)
Then, somewhere in the midst of all his anger, he realized that even though his “war paint tattoos” didn’t make him a bad guy, all his revenge-plotting and bad-mouthing was exactly the sort of thing that someone would expect from a guy who looked like him. He did have the right to express himself with whatever tattoos he wanted, but he was beginning to see that he didn’t have the right to stoop to the level of the guys he was taking revenge on. He realized he had been acting hypocritically his whole life. He had been bad-mouthed and stereotyped, and now he had to face the fact that he was no better than the man who had “libeled” him in the newspaper.
Scary divides his life into the time before that realization and the time after. He took a hard look at his behavior and noticed a cycle of hatred and negativity. He had been taking in other people’s negativity and casting it back out into the world. This problem was thorough and wide-reaching. Violence in schools was getting worse, he noticed, and suicides were becoming more common. So, with a new sense of purpose, Scary set out to change more than just himself. Just as quickly as he went from being a computer salesman to a motorcycle-riding tattoo artist, Scary went from salesman to something like an aspiring New Age religious leader. The first thing he did was to change his name to the very same lame insult his competitor had thrown at him: a scary guy. And not just a scary guy, but The Scary Guy.
Then he began his research. He started talking to people of all ages. He asked them whether they thought of themselves as nice people, whether they thought other people were nice to them, and whether they believed that world peace was possible. He quit his job as a tattoo shop owner and artist and began traveling the world to learn about the causes of violence and hatred. He found that kids started falling off of the “world peace wagon” around early middle school, so that’s the age group to which he started directing his message.
The Scary Guy, as should now be clear, is a man of extremes. He painted nonstop as a child, then stopped painting and became a white collar computer salesman. When that started to feel suffocating, he got one tattoo on a Saturday, had four more by Monday, and was soon traveling to another city every week, getting tattooed from head to toe. A couple years later, he owned three tattoo parlors in Tucson and was about to run over a guy’s dog. Then, when he realized he had become the epitome of an overly proud and vengeful motorcycle-riding tattoo junkie, he had what he now calls a “total emotional death experience.” That’s when he changed his name, and began travelling to elementary schools to “train” students to advocate for world peace. Scary was determined to be so militantly nice that he would scare all traces of meanness out of his trainees.
The content of his trainings varies, but one of the central teachings is that no one should be judged for how they choose to express themselves. Specifically, Scary rejects the way people tend to look down on “body modifications” like tattoos and piercings because, from Scary’s perspective, something as simple as gaining weight or getting a haircut could be called body modification. He says he’s more concerned with personality.
But for a guy ultimately concerned with what’s beneath the surface, Scary is pretty interested in how people decorate their skin. That’s because, unlike most other art forms, “you’re dealing with a living human body and their emotions.” As a tattoo artist, his materials are not just ink and skin, but also personality. The best designs, after all, are reflections of who a client is, or who they want to be. In that way, they bridge the gap between what’s underneath and what’s on the surface. He showed me the sketch of one of his favorite tattoos he’s given, an image of a client’s aunt’s ragdoll. He seems to remember every tattoo he’s given and the specific story behind each one.
Scary believes wholeheartedly that human relationships depend on what lies beneath appearance. Because his appearance is shocking, it causes people to look—then look away, guilty—and then look again. Once he has their attention, he teaches them to see beneath the surface. His plan was never to modify his body to shock people into listening to an anti-hate message, but it certainly works now.
I’m not usually one for self-help or motivational talks, but watching Scary’s speeches made me genuinely motivated to eradicate all malice from my life. He’s just up there on stage, screaming his painted head off about how much it sucks that people are mean to each other. He’s completely aware of how bizarre his presentation is, and he revels in it. His personality seems so strange that it could only be a performance, but he’s completely sincere.
Scary could be easily categorized as one of those TED Talk motivational speakers who leaves you super enthused for about three hours, but unaffected in the long run. But I think Scary is onto something. Maybe we need less polite niceties and more strangeness. Then we could all follow Scary’s example: owning who we are, and unabashedly displaying our exact brand of weird.