High Marks

The Scary Guy goes to the head of the class as a school motivational speaker

Invited to speak to at a high school career day a couple of years ago, the tattooist so impressed one of the teachers that she invited him to speak to her class. Word of mouth led to other bookings around the city and, eventually, back to his home state of Minnesota. Earlier this year, Scary joined the National Speakers Association, the Tempe-based organization that helps members learn how to more effectively market themselves on the lecture circuit. Today, Scary requests a $500-a-day honorarium for his services, although the fee is negotiable for schools on tighter budgets.

Already booked well into the next two years, he'll speak to a graduating class of juvenile probation officers in Phoenix later this month. Scary attributes part of his success to timing: In the wake of Columbine and other school shootings in recent years, educators are desperately looking for answers -- answers, suggests Scary, that someone like him might have been able to provide before the gunfire began. "Unfortunately," he says, "a lot of people want to ignore potential problems until it's too late."

Watching him masterfully work a crowd, it's no surprise to learn that Scary is no stranger to the worlds of both sales and showmanship. Long before he first embellished his epidermis with one of his wall-to-wall "tribal markings," he was a failed singer, actor and sometimes standup comic who eventually found himself selling computers for Unisys in Minneapolis.

Tender loving scare: The Scary Guy receives mixed reaction from ambivalent audience members.
Paolo Vescia
Tender loving scare: The Scary Guy receives mixed reaction from ambivalent audience members.
Paolo Vescia
Point counterpoint: Scary makes the grade.
Paolo Vescia
Point counterpoint: Scary makes the grade.

Despite his success in sales, he felt creatively straitjacketed by white-collar life. "During that time, I was secretly collecting tattoos under my suit and tie," he explains. One of those markings -- a depiction of an exploding head he calls "Yuppiecide" -- persuaded him to shuck the duds of conventionality and follow his artistic heart to Tucson. Arriving there in 1993, he operated a string of tattoo parlors until two years ago.

Now making a mark on the world in an entirely different way, Scary lives in a converted warehouse-cum-art studio in a Tucson barrio that doubles as world headquarters for KidsVisionHeart (Scary's traveling expenses are covered by scholastic and corporate grants). The anti-prejudice presentations are an adjunct to his fledgling for-profit enterprise, a money-making division that currently consists of online merchandising -- tee shirts, sunglasses and posters. Eventually, Scary hopes to branch out to encompass tolerance-based comic books, as well as upbeat TV and commercial film appearances.

Until Hollywood gets around to producing a tattoo-parlor version of Gentlemen's Agreement, however, Scary and his wife man their artfully appointed fortress with the assistance of a secretary who handles fan mail.

"It just never stops," says Julie Kaufmann, a professional harpist who now manages her husband's bookings and introduces his shows. "His tattoos are a wonderful attention-getter, but there are times I wish we could just go out in public and blend into the scenery."

When not on the road, much of the couple's time is spent dealing with the organization's Web site, www.thescaryguy.com.

The razzle-dazzle site, which has attracted more than 1.75 million hits in less than two years, is the epicenter of all things Scary. Visitors can shop at an online store, post questions to the Ask Mrs. Scary Guy column, view photos of a jet apparently landing on Scary's head and review a complete schedule of Mr. S's upcoming appearances, right down to upcoming barber shop appointments. Various other clicks take Scaryphiles to online plugs for Scary's doctor, dentist, personal trainer and a pal who works on motorcycles. One link currently under construction will eventually enable young visitors to wander through the history of tattooing; another link-of-the-future promises "cooool" locksmith tips and "far out" locksmith photos.

Strewn throughout this somewhat head-scratching tour of Scarydom are, naturally, platinum-plated words of wisdom from the world's scariest sage.

"Take pride in your smile," urges the man whose own dentistry now resembles that of Jaws, the villain from Moonraker. "You only get one set of teeth, so take care of them."

Those metal molars, rarely seen in public in anything but a grimace, come into full view as Scary entertains a question that makes him smile.

Why would anyone who's promoting brotherhood and understanding christen himself "The Scary Guy"? Why not "The Tolerant Guy"? The "Warm 'n' Fuzzy Guy"? Or "The Touchy-Feely Guy"?

"Hey," he laughs. "This is show business. What kid would want to see Mr. Nice?"

Good point. Everyone already knows what happens to him.

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