The Skinhead and the Fag.
The Skinhead and the Fag.
That’s how the story might have been written.
Its 2022 now.
And together, we – Russell and me – set out to write a different story. One we actually discovered unknowingly. One we thought began in 2019. But it actually started in 1989.
I wouldn’t have known it. I didn’t know it. Maybe I was told? I don’t remember.
I was 19. With a fake I.D. And had been in the bars – gay and straight – since I was 16. At 18, I was ‘ disowned ‘ by my parents. As if… I was ‘ owned ‘ – fuck you. You never ‘ owned ‘ me… your job was to raise me. Which largely you failed at. That said, disowning me became a painful door, swung wide open in the middle of the height of an emotional storm, to a freedom I was lucky enough to have the backbone to endeavour. And so I did.
I found myself, in the Inland Empire, seeking out ‘ my kind ‘at Grand Central – a gay bar in San Bernardino. A place where we LG [ we didn’t have the other letters yet ] could feel ‘ safe ‘ . Among our own. Drinking. Playing pool. Dancing. Laughing. Holding hands. Kissing. And working out all the romantic dramas that we all missed out on in our otherwise ‘ normal emotional development ‘ throughout our pre-teen and teen years.
The bar would close at 2 am. Like every bar. With laughs, and hugs. Perhaps some snarky comments thrown at a would-be-boyfriend for hurt feelings earlier at the pool table. An invite here or there for an after party. An intimate invite to come together sexually with the one you’d been flirting with all night. We’d start to poor out of the bar and find our cars. Yes, hardly sober… bad move there. The journey to find our ways home commenced. Or, more often than not, ‘home’ became the comforting arms of someone else, in their bed… at their home. That was closer. Praying to God their wallet would be on the nightstand so, just in case, you could grab it to remember his name… Yep. Been there.
I had no idea. None. That there were skinheads lurking in the shadows at Grand Central. Just beyond the well-lit floodlights of the cracking asphalt parking lot. There were no cops anywhere. They didn’t give a shit about us ‘ throwaway ‘ people and our throwaway culture. Plus, they might just get AIDS if they got too close to us. “ Fuck ‘em, its not worth it”, we’d hear a passing officer in a patrol car roll by with the window down on a summer early morning. And so the opportunity was a good one for those in the skinhead and white supremacist cultures to meet their initiation check boxes. Easy prey that deserved to be eliminated and had no protection. …So I’ve come to learn.
Beat the shit out of a fag. Check. Points.
Kill a fag. Check. Big bonus points.
Growing up in our misguided and confusing, abusive home… there were plenty of mixed messages. All the time.
One of them, was tattoos. Our father told us – in no uncertain terms – tattoos were for ‘ druggies ‘ , ‘ prostitutes ‘ , ‘ losers ‘ … .’ gangbearers ‘ , ‘ bikers ‘ , ‘ lowlifes ‘. Copy that Dad. Gotcha.
But… mixed message? We had a lot of tattoo’d folks in our family. Family members WITH tattoos. Ok. We had a number with drug addiction issues. Yep. So that might fit Dad’s argument. All my dad’s male peers were Vietnam veterans, including his brother – my uncle. Like badges of passage, they all had tattoo’s. A couple of my aunts had tattoo’s – elbow, elbow, wink, wink… in those discrete spots on their bodies. So whats a kid to think? …It didn’t matter. We were just trying to stay out of his swing radius to avoid being hit when he was on a bender. There wasn’t time to dedicate to the mixed messaging of ‘ to tattoo or not tattoo ‘ .
My reality? I don’t know if its because I’m a ‘ creative ‘ . Or part of a SoCal reality rooted in visual street expression. Or… what? But I always found tattoo’s fascinating. I wanted to look. And learn. And know more. Ask questions. Why? Why do people put all that ink on their body? What are they telling me… us? What’s the story? What’s their story?
Tattoo’s were right up there, for me, with so much of the other visual iconography of Southern California. Graffiti. Billboards. Bumper stickers. Childhood – and childlike – artworks on railroad bridges. Tattoo’s were an artform, on skin, that managed to blast a visual story, in a tightly edited space. And when done well – to each their own story – gives you a microscopic insight into that human’s life.
How much they love Mom.
Who their life’s partner is and why they love them.
Who their children are and why they love them.
Who their pets are and why they love them.
What war they fought in and how it changed their life. Semper Fi.
What prison they served time in and how that defined them.
What tribe they align with and why they need their voice heard.
What their favorite flower is.
That certain men love big breasted women.
That certain women see phallic symbolism in snakes.
That panthers, or koi fish, or lions, or bears… have different meanings to different wearers.
That… almost always – God, as symbolized by the cross, rises above all other stories.
And that… as almost always as God – the American Flag claps and billows strongly right behind or below the cross.
These were the tattoos I saw. The stories I read. Not so much from every walk of life… in the 70’s, and 80’s and 90’s… But when you looked closely you were as likely to see a suited-up, buttoned-down white business man coming out of the same tattoo salon as the skinhead with the sign of the devil tattoo’d on their bald scalp.
Somehow in the place where these stories find their space on the skin, otherwise unlikely kin folk, were coming together.
Shortly after my son was born, in 2016, my parents made the effort to meet him. They failed. Miserably. True to form. No surprises. The manner in which they conducted themselves was sad… pathetic… unacceptable. And the surprise came, for me, when, for the last time, I closed that door. Done. You don’t get to affect my son the same you did me and my brother. I served my 18 years in your prison… and my 25 or so parole years after that. We’re done. Its not happening again to another innocent soul. Not one I protect. We’re done. That’s a wrap.
Wrapping it up and putting it away was… freeing. Truly. For the first time in my life. No crying or unsettled feelings. Just… acceptance. From family prison, to dis-owned to door-closed.
I could feel my wings stretch just then. At that moment. On that day. …Really.
With a quiet strength I hadn’t felt… about this issue. Ever. The horizon, above the pine tree canopy at the Lake, wasn’t something I had to ask… permission to fly above. It’d been there all along. I just had to flex the muscles in these wings that had been so bound and restricted for almost 50 years. And set them up to ride the wind.
…Just stand tall. Look up to the Heavens. Confident. Outstretch them. And soar. … that’s all.
It took 50 years in my human journey… my story. But for the first time, with my baby boy in my arms, I could feel the strength of my own wings. That they lived in their own beautifully crafted nest that I had built. That the sounds and the energy surrounding this nest was inspired. Joyful. Filled with laughter. And exploration. Me. That God was found in every cellular moment that made this space I called home…
It was time to ink.
The time had come.
I would be 50 soon. 50 years without ink was enough. What might the next 50 years look like? And what would I share in the story on my skin…?
The Northern Nevada region is filled with talented ink artists. It’s a booming business. I don’t know why. Something about this place on Earth… just embraces it. And with it, there is a lot of storytelling. So I set off to find my ghost writer. Not a clue who it might be. Awkward and nervous. Honestly, clueless. It took a few weeks. Couple total disconnects. Like any interviewing process. And then… I found it. I found him.
At 6’2” tall, covered… head to toe – literally, Russell was an intimidating vision. The type of human being you say to yourself, ‘ I would not want to cross paths with him in an abandoned alley ‘ . Yep… I have to own that’s what I thought when I first saw him. Holy fuck. He scared the shit out of me.
There was something in his eyes.
Curiosity? Humor? Wisdom? Strength? Beauty? … His skull is completely inked. Intimidating in its story. Putting you on call. But the eyes inside that skull, were talking to me. From the first time we met in his studio in Kings Beach on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe.
I now know the truth behind that moment for him too. We’ve laughed about it a number of times. ‘ What the fuck is this guy thinking? He’s never been inked. And he thinks he can go in strong on a cross and full set of wings all over his back? … ok. Lets see what rolls from this ‘ .
We talked. Chatted. Two creatives with different toolboxes and resultant products, riffing on inspiration and symbol and meaning and passion and love. With the same high bar level of fascination and commitment.
As the pro that he is he advised me to ‘ take it slow ‘ . Lets do this one step at a time. Lets start with this Gaelic cross and family crest and see how you do. If it goes well, we’ll figure it out from there… maybe a few feathers. [ Russell’s thought bubble – this dude won’t ever be able to get through the making of these wings – ha! ; } ]
That was three years ago. And some 240 ink hours of time ago.
He’ll hate this. Russell will. It doesn’t fit with his message. And what the hell do I know. I’m bald. But like all the stories you hear about women and their hair stylists. The same soon became true for me and Russell.
Baby steps. At first I had to find a way to breath. For the newbie, there is literally no way to describe the pain that is inflicted on the body from the tattoo needle. I could have never imagined. The actual feeling. No matter what anyone who had gone under the needle had shared. There’s just no way. So… I focused on breathing. Meditating. Imagining the strides we count in the arena when we’re hunting and jumping with our horses. … I can do this! I’ll get there… one, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. One, two, three four. One… two… three… four.
I got there. And in time, becoming a master of transcendental tattoo meditation, instead of imagining jumps between four stride counts, I could finally talk. And we did. For hours and hours and hours…
Russell’s a two-time felon murderer. Yep, he’s killed two guys.
Served 16 years in maximum security.
He’s been out now for 16 years. Just celebrated the milestone.
He grew up in Colton, California.
So that’s the headline. The one that gets your attention on the evening news and will capture your interest to read on. Turns out these are the headlines I really don’t care about. Kind of like all his tattoos, head to toe… Interesting, but ok, but what’s the story?
I was attracted to the facts that made that curiosity in his eyes so vivid.
He was once a young boy in what we know now as the Inland Empire, fully invested in livestock and agriculture in San Bernardino and looking forward to the annual fairs to share his pride cow of the year. Always leading the way with confidence.
He loves his mother. Deeply. And misses her terribly as they live on opposite sides of the country and often don’t have the time or money to meet up as much as they’d love to.
He fly fishes. That’s his Zen. Three days a week. Sun or snow. It brings him peace. And he can spend a whole day, wet booted up, in those passing waters communing with the fish, breathing in the mountain air, listening to… the song of the forest. And fly fishing. Big shit-eat grin on his face, hand rolled cigarette hanging on his lower lip.
He loves his dog. Passionately. His warrior partner. Who, together, they sit on their alpine throne in a pine forest in the Sierra’s, venturing out together into the woods to find… more peace. Feeling the power that emanates from the history and artifacts of Ancient Rome and the stories of all the warriors who defined civilization.
He loves his ex-wife. His best friend. Who just flat ‘ gets him ‘ . They’re business partners. And any of us would be as lucky as they are to have someone have our back the way they do for one another.
He’s a business owner. Has payroll and employees. Pays his taxes. His rent. His vendors. Is a significant and active contributor to his neighborhood and his community.
Serves a broad quilt of customers. From middle aged gay guys like me. To his homies recently out of prison circling back for what is the equivalent of a felon’s hug.
He respects women. Deeply. You just don’t fuck with that. And he’ll set you straight if you even try.
He has well thought through arguments. On everything from tattoo art and style, to politics and leadership. And – I don’t know why we’d be surprised – he’s often flat fucking right. Spot on.
… I could go on. And on. Suffice to say. I love this guy. I just do.
And through these three years and all these hours of talking and sharing… creating a unique bond that no one could have imagined possible. Guess what?
We discovered, early on – a couple years ago, the kid from Colton and the kid from Riverside. The one going through initiation in the white supremacist skinhead community and the one walking into the blaring and uncertain light of ‘ coming out ‘ as a late teen in the late 80’s. That he was in the shadows. Just outside the parking lot. Of Grand Central. As I was coming out the exit when the bar closed.
We were there. There too. There then. Together. He and I. Two souls on a trajectory we can only begin to understand now in hindsight.
Was there a target on my back? I don’t know… Did I hate or fear skinheads? No. I was trying to figure out where my next meal was coming from and if I had a bed to sleep in for the night.
Each of us, at that time, with all the ingredients… our soul’s pre-set DNA’s. To find ourselves – these thirty years later. Able to see one another. With a certain knowledge in our eyes. To listen to one another… with an unfettered curiosity. To laugh and joke and give one another shit… as only brothers can. To have so much in common… just below the canvases of our inked skin. That so many just looking at the inked skin would never try to explore because of fear or resistance… stereotype and ignorance.
Those boys… those kids… in 1989.
Knew ‘home’ better than anyone.
We were just so deep in the dark holes of our then realities that we didn’t know there was a light, down the hall, just higher up the stairs that bent and switch backed. A light we had to walk to. To climb to. To reach for. One you can’t just flip a switch for. But one you have to climb and strive and struggle… to reach. One you have to believe in yourself… that you can. That, in fact, you will. Reach it.
I want to keep racking hours and ink together. Not because I need it. But because I love the room we live in together when we’re together. I love how warm our light is together. I’m blown away by the space we’ve created with one another.
Could it be that this space was always there… we just needed to be able to read the stories on our bodies? And listen to one another to find a light better than the lamp light in that asphalt parking lot at Grand Central.
The Skinhead and the Fag. 1989
Russell and Scott. 2022.