High Marks
Paolo Vescia

High Marks

Kids killing kids.

Kids killing teachers.

Kids killing themselves.

The nation's youthscape is a fright, all right -- but there's one person who thinks he's got the magic bullet.

That would be The Scary Guy, "America's Only Live Comic Book Hero."

"The country's No. 1 social disease?" asks Scary, as his friends call him, thoughtfully stroking the spike running through the bridge of his nose.


And who should know better than a person whose body is almost entirely covered with tattoos? A fellow whose multipierced face is studded with nearly as many rivets as a small battleship? A guy whose teeth are capped with gold crowns that will, he promises, soon sport letters that spell out his name in red, white and blue jewels?

Mr. Rogers, he ain't.

Which is why it's surprising to learn that The Scary Guy (his legal name since 1998) has recently been lauded by some education authorities as the greatest thing to hit the school-assembly circuit since anti-drug crusader Mr. T hung up his gold chains.

Accompanied by his normal-looking wife Julie, Scary now spends nine months of the year living out of a suitcase, spreading the gospel primarily in Arizona, Michigan and Colorado. During one of the couple's first days home in weeks, Scary and the missus stand backstage in the auditorium of Tucson's Santa Rita High School waiting to bring the message to nearly 1,000 students from 11 Tucson schools participating in a daylong peace conference.

Laughing, Scary admits that it wasn't too long ago that the only way he'd ever have been allowed to set foot on a grade school or high school campus would have been as a "don't let this happen to you" exhibition.

"Would I have been standing here 10 years ago?" he asks in a booming voice reminiscent of John Goodman. "No way. But things have been loosening up, and some of the people in the schools are open-minded enough to realize I'm an awareness maker."

On the other side of the curtain, Scary awareness is reaching pandemonium pitch. Despite the peace-themed occasion, the atmosphere inside the theater is anything but tranquil. Totally stoked by now (earlier in the day, they'd met Ronald McDonald and McGruff the Crime Dog), the kids shriek, giggle and generally turn the venue into a facsimile of a Saturday afternoon monster-movie matinee as they wait for the day's big attraction. A few wide-eyed participants appear to be totally spooked by the spectacle -- why are the teachers throwing us to the wolves? Most of the kids, however, couldn't be happier about this reprieve from the classroom to watch some character who looks like a scowling fugitive from the World Wrestling Federation.

"He's not scary -- he's nice," explains 10-year-old Margarita, a fifth-grader who has already seen Scary's presentation several times this school year. "He just wants to change the world."

"Yeah," chimes in a friend, when the man with the permanent Halloween mask embedded in his pores finally takes the stage sporting a newly bleached platinum flattop. "Hey, look," she says nonchalantly. "He dyed his hair."

Tinted locks, flashy flesh and metal molars be damned. The Scary Guy is first and foremost about showing your true colors and appreciating those of others -- even if, as in his case, all of the hues involved have been cosmetically enhanced."His message is something nobody can resist," says Scary fan Dave Overstreet, principal of Erikson Elementary School in Tucson. "At our school, the kids just fell in love with him. They're in awe of the man. He's got a great heart."

And, assuming that he does, it's a good thing -- The Scary Guy's formal credentials for the job are frighteningly sketchy. Outside of raising a now-grown daughter from an earlier marriage, he readily confesses that his only previous interaction with children was a stint as a discount-market baby photographer and shooting the breeze with teen truants who hung out at his tattoo shop, until it was mysteriously fire-bombed in an unsolved arson case two years ago.

Still, who needs a degree when your résumé is written all over your face? Just ask any teacher, and you'll learn that grabbing the kids' attention is half the battle.

"Any time you can get a message through to the kids, that's good," says Penny Morris, director of pupil services for the Sierra Vista Public School system. And if it takes someone who looks like a member of the Jim Rose Circus Side Show to spread the word? Well, so be it. "Obviously, the way he looks gets their attention."

Karen Redwine, a health educator with Cochise County Health and Social Services, agrees. "He's an attention-getter, an iconoclast," she notes. "I can't say enough good stuff about him. I think someone said it best when they described him as the dragon and the dragon slayer wrapped up in one."

Nobody's ever going to snooze through an appearance by The Scary Guy.

And he's pretty good at slaying an auditorium full of kids, too. After beginning his speech with a sobering dedication "to all the boys and girls who've lost their lives in American schools," "America's Only Live Comic Book Hero" quickly reverts to his alleged funny-book roots.

Working the room like a Vegas pro, Scary draws cheers and laughter as he barks out his "don't judge a book by its cover" spiel like a tough-love Sergeant Rock.

Singling out one giggling youngster, he roars, "I know what you're thinking: "He's a biker . . .'" Then, pointing to another child, "". . . No, he's a wrestler . . .'" Singling out yet another kid, ""Wait, I know who he is -- he's the governor of Minnesota!'" While few in this young audience probably understand this left-field reference to Jesse Ventura (truth be told, the famed grappler-turned-guv looks nothing like Scary), the crowd goes nuts.

For the next half-hour, he expertly plays the audience like an organ. And though the audience sometimes drifts from the score -- for some inexplicable reason, his description of a juvenile detention center as "a fancy word for "jail for kids'" triggers a rash of girlish titters from one section of the audience -- most of the audience is in complete harmony with the program.

Listening intently, they cheer and laugh on cue as The Pied Piper of Prejudice Prevention trounces through the audience, urging them to be kind to animals, turn down drugs, nix tobacco, do unto others and generally follow other homilies of the Golden Rule ilk.

The presentation ends when everyone in the house takes the Scary oath, a promise to say nothing negative about anyone for a solid week. Or at least try not to.

Mission accomplished, the über-inked idol gets down to the serious business of signing autographs, posing for pictures and pressing color-impregnated flesh with his adoring public.

As the giddy young fans swarm around the Tattooed Titan of Tolerance, it's difficult to tell who's having more fun, the worshipers or the worshipee.

It's been two years since The Scary Guy laid down his needles to go gunning for intolerance. But all hoopla aside, can this tattooed evangelist really make an indelible impression on the nation's schoolchildren?The Scary Guy thinks so. As he's so fond of telling people, "I get to tattoo millions of kids' hearts now. And it's not with a tattoo machine."

Tattoo needle or not, some observers fail to get Scary's point. While there's certainly no harm in preaching simple platitudes about tolerance that wouldn't be out of place in a Casper the Friendly Ghost cartoon, skeptics ask why the message needs to be delivered by someone who has gone out of his way to give people the wrong impression about himself.

"I get that sometimes, especially whenever I speak before black audiences," concedes Scary. "It's always, "Hey, wait a minute -- you chose to look like this. We didn't choose to be black.'

"My answer: "You're absolutely right -- but does anyone's decision to look however they want to justify hate and discrimination? No.'" Scary pauses. "Jumping to the wrong conclusion about someone and racism are two entirely different things. A lot of people don't understand that." And, of course, a lot of other people don't even think that far.

Were it not for what he perceives as prejudice, Scary (née Earl Kenneth Kaufmann) might still be wielding an ink-filled needle in a Tucson strip mall. Seething after a rival tattoo artist placed an ad in a newspaper asking, "Are you tired of dealing with scary guys with warpaint facial tattoos?" Scary himself hit the warpath to self-discovery.

"Who would say such a thing about someone they didn't even know, let alone print it in the paper?" he wondered. "Why would anyone do that? I'm a nice guy."

Still, Scary's immediate reaction was anything but nice.

"The first thought that came to mind was revenge," he confesses. "I thought, "Aha! I'll run a negative ad about him.'" Or, better yet, ""I'll jump in my hot rod Lincoln and drive over and run over his dog or something.'" Pausing for effect, he shakes his head dramatically. "No, I'm not a violent dude -- I mean, I suppose I could be if I needed to be, but that wasn't me."

Another dramatic pause. "I thought I wasn't like this guy who'd placed the ad. But then I did a little soul-searching -- and I realized I was exactly like him."

It was that moment, says Scary, that he realized his true mission in life.

"I had no idea what that meant or how I was going to do it," he confesses. "But I told my wife, "I'm packing my bags, strapping my boots on and doing whatever it takes to do that.'"

His modest goal? As stated in publicity for KidsVisionHeart, the IRS-approved nonprofit foundation that funds his works, it is "The Total Elimination of Hate, Violence and Prejudice Worldwide."

If Scary ultimately falls somewhat short of that lofty aim, well, you can't blame a guy for trying. In November, school officials in St. Joseph, Missouri, canceled one of his speaking dates when some parents complained that his appearance sent a "mixed message" to students. At least the St. Joe school even considered booking Scary. "We've met some of these principals and, frankly, they leave a lot to be desired," says Scary booster Ben Anderson Jr., a Bisbee consultant currently running for State Representative in District 8. "A lot of them just don't get it." But for sharp young audience members who are willing to look beyond the obvious, Scary's lecture also provides an inadvertent education of another sort. Namely, marketing, self-promotion and mid-life career reinvention.

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.

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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