Beneath a merciless Arizona sun on a Saturday in early September, a crowd of more than 300 waits at the edge of Bartlett Lake, about 50 miles northeast of downtown Phoenix, to watch a Viking ship, gliding silently atop the lake’s still waters, meet a fiery end.
The seven-foot replica, painted scarlet and black, features a black mainsail etched with the word “Wolfskin” in garish red letters. At its prow, a dragon’s head with a gaping mouth and jagged teeth snarls, while the boat’s aft ends with the dragon’s curled tail.
Earlier, mourners placed silver rings and coins inside the ship, as well as bread, fruit, and a knife. Some left photos or personal messages for Jubel Dean Perkins, better known simply as Jubel Dean, the man whose ashes lay in a wooden box in the funeral barge.
Now, with the ship set adrift by Perkins’ widow, Rayney, an archer stands ready to fire flaming arrows at the boat. But Perkins, who died at the age of 33, gunned down on a hot August night in a sketchy area of central Phoenix for reasons still unknown, does not go gently.
One arrow, dipped in flammable liquid and set ablaze, hits the vessel. But the ship fails to ignite. Other arrows fall short as Perkins’ Viking ship sails away from shore, forcing a handful of mourners to swim out to the boat to set it aflame by hand.
As the Viking ship is devoured by a mini inferno, the men, women, and children onshore erupt in cheers, chanting “Hail, Jubel Dean!” Many wear Thor’s hammers on chains around their necks or T-shirts bearing the hooked othala rune, indicating they are followers of Asatru, a growing religion that venerates the Old Norse gods and is estimated to have tens of thousands of followers nationwide.
There is also an extremist element on hand, evidenced by men who’ve removed their shirts to reveal Nazi swastikas or the words “White Power” inked into their flesh: a minority, to be sure, but a reminder that Asatru is sometimes associated with virulent racism.
Finally, the lake consumes the orange flames of the floating bier, concluding the four-hour ceremony for Perkins, a giant of a man and ex-convict who learned the art of tattooing behind bars and emerged from prison in 2010 to remake himself, build a successful tattoo parlor on the West Side, Wolfskin Ink, and host a yearly promotional event and fundraiser for charity called Wolfstock.
In his six years out of prison, Perkins married and started a family of four children (two from his wife’s previous union). Having studied Asatru in the pen, Perkins formed a kindred, an Asatru religious community consisting of several families, in this case six, who elected him their Godi (pronounced Go-thee), as an Asatru spiritual leader is known. He also navigated the process of making his kindred, Northern Roots, a part of the Asatru Alliance, a coalition of kindreds with more than 30 nationwide.
Among his kindred, he was a popular — and unforgettable — figure. Dressed from head to toe in armor, he fought yearly in the Estrella War at Schnepf Farms in Queen Creek, where participants engage in full-contact medieval-style battle under the aegis of the Society for Creative Anachronism. He was also a budding rocker, singing a song called “21st-Century Viking” with his favorite band, Throw the Switch.
Friends and family say Perkins was on his way home from band practice in Central Phoenix when he made a detour that would end his life. According to Phoenix police, Perkins and an unidentified man stopped their vehicle near 1900 East Adams Street for unknown reasons, and Perkins got out. An altercation with a group of black men turned violent, and Perkins ended up getting shot several times in the back.
The murder remains unsolved, with no arrests or suspects, one of many mysteries revolving around the 6-foot-4, 400-pound behemoth, whose life story is filled with contradictions and unanswered questions. How, after all, did the son of a Native American become an adherent of a religion based upon ancient, Northern European beliefs? Was his slaying the result of a racial beef, a drug deal gone awry, or something entirely different?
As Perkins raised a family and built a business, did he put his prison years in the rear-view mirror? Or in his final moments on Earth, was he unable to outrun the demons of his past?
Long before his rebirth as a 21st-century Viking, Jubel Dean was a chubby mama’s boy, “just an average little brother,” recalls his older sister, Annika Jones, over breakfast at a local diner. “He would sit down and play Barbies with me. He loved the Ninja Turtles.”
Born in Casper, Wyoming, he was the son of Jubel Perkins Sr., a member of the Kansas Kickapoo tribe, and his wife Teresa, who is Anglo. Obituary notices for Perkins Sr., who died in 2013, note that he’d been a U.S. Marine, a bull rider, and worked for many years at the Native American Rehabilitation Association of the Northwest, an Indian-owned facility in Portland, Oregon.
Jones says Jubel Sr. and Teresa split just two years after Jubel Jr. was born, and a couple of years later, Teresa moved to Phoenix with her children. Though Jones had a different father, she says she and her brother were very close. The household was dominated by women, and Jubel was coddled, in part, because he was overweight.
Their childhood wasn’t an easy one. Their mother endured “bad relationships,” Jones says, and she and her brother witnessed violence growing up. Drug abuse was also a part of their family life, and it landed on Jubel. “He was just a young kid who got caught up in drugs,” Jones says. “He went to prison as a kid who wore Dickies and liked to rap.”
Court documents show that Perkins had an extensive criminal history as a juvenile, accumulating arrests for aggravated robbery, drug possession, shoplifting, burglary, and transporting narcotics.
As an adult, he racked up convictions for burglary, attempted armed robbery, and aggravated assault. A 2002 probation report states that Perkins admitted he tried to rob a Texaco store “as a means to support his drug habit,” and that he’d been on a drug binge in the month preceding the crime. Perkins told his probation officer that he was “powerless to drugs.”
Perkins had already spent about six years in prison when he was released on intensive parole and probation at the age of 24. He was a free man for about a month and half before falling back into the same cycle of drugs and crime. According to the court record, Perkins says he was promised $500 by someone to evict a man from a house. He was later alleged to have kicked in the house’s front door, threatening the man with a knife, following three days of shooting up methamphetamine.
After pleading guilty to aggravated assault, Perkins wrote the judge, apologizing for his crime, saying that he’d dropped out of high school because of a cocaine addiction, and that drug use was his bane. He promised to do better the second time around. The judge approved a plea deal, sentencing him to another three and a half years in prison.
It was during this second stint that Perkins got serious about two things that would change his life: the art of tattooing, and Asatru.
Perkins had already picked up the tattooing bug from other prisoners. As a boy, Jubel loved to draw, and tattooing became his passion, an outlet for his creative energies, as long as he could get away with it. The practice is forbidden by prison authorities, but as his prison disciplinary history shows, with numerous violations for giving or receiving tattoos, that didn’t stop him.
In a 2012 YouTube video to promote Wolfskin Ink, Perkins explains that most of his latter years in prison were spent in solitary confinement, where he channeled his anger into creating “flash art,” or tattoo designs drawn on paper. By the time he left prison, he had a ton of these, enough to score a gig with a local tattoo parlor and fill a wall in the makeshift studio he built behind his house, when he decided to go solo.
He also got a few books of flash art published, won some competitions, and garnered a regular clientele with his crazed designs of Uncle Sam skeletons, demented clowns, pin-up biker girls licked by flames, rapacious wolves, and skulls topped with Indian headdresses.
Later designs include sick spiderwebs inhabited by desiccated, top-hatted gamblers, a dragon with gnarled human hands holding an embryo in the womb, and Norse symbolism, such as the Yggdrasil, a mystical ash tree that connects all nine worlds of the Scandinavian cosmology. There were also some risqué images, like a buxom, latex-bound nun wearing a gas mask that he tattooed on the left thigh of his good friend Robin Green. During prison, Perkins corresponded with Green’s main squeeze, the late, legendary Arizona biker Robert “Chico” Mora of Hells Angels and Dirty Dozen motorcycle club fame.
In another promotional video, Perkins says tattooing let him “make a living off people who love my art,” and had a therapeutic effect, “something that keeps me sane ... something that keeps me focused.”
More than that, Wolfskin was thriving, with six artists on-site in addition to Perkins, and two mobile tattoo parlors that allowed them to roam, doing events all over Arizona, as well as in California, Nevada, Oregon, and South Dakota. His business allowed him to be the sole provider for Rayney and the kids, and he got to meet some of his outlaw heroes, like renowned Hells Angels badass Sonny Barger and controversial country music singer David Allan Coe.
The week before his death, he and another Wolfskin artist returned from working at the 76th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, a prestigious event for any tattoo artist to set up shop. And Perkins was looking forward to his fourth Wolfstock on August 27, which had outgrown its block-party status and was now being held at a nearby Eagles Lodge.
“He had already rented his space at Sturgis for the next year,” Green tells New Times of her fallen friend. “His life was coming together so good. He really had it going on.”
Valgard Murray, founder of the Asatru Alliance and one of the progenitors of modern Asatru, watched Perkins’ path from inmate to free man. He also witnessed a transformation. “Jubel is a sterling example of someone who did his time and came out and did things right,” Murray says. “I’m very proud of him. I call him a graduate from prison.”
Murray recalls corresponding with Perkins while he was in prison and believes Perkins purchased a Thor’s hammer from him, which prisoners are allowed to wear if the necklace meets certain conditions. Murray believes Asatru can provide a “spirit boost” to prisoners and help them turn their lives around, which is what Perkins seems to have done in the six years from his release in 2010 to his gruesome death.
He estimated that there are “tens of thousands” of followers of Asatru nationwide. He refers to Asatru as “the religion of our ancestors,” likening it to Native American beliefs and other indigenous religions, such as Shinto in Japan. He describes it in ethnic terms as being the original, pre-Christian religion of those of Northern European descent. “It’s not some New Age thing,” Murray, 66, harrumphs at one point. “It’s 10,000 years old.”
The pre-Christian worship of Norse gods may be thousands of years old, but Asatru actually is a neologism derived from Old Norse words, which translates as “belief in the Aesir,” one part of the Northern Pantheon, which includes such gods as Thor, god of thunder, Frigga, goddess of marriage and the hearth, and her husband, Odin, chieftain of the gods as well as god of wisdom and poetry, among other things.
Murray, who lives in Payson, publishes a heathen periodical called Vor Tru, which means “Our Faith” in Old Norse. He once served as the elected Allsherjargoði, or high chieftain, of the Asatru Alliance, but now says he’s retired. He still maintains the organization’s website Asatru.org, a font of information about Asatru, through which he sells books, DVDs, ritual items, and offers “the largest selection of Thor’s hammers in Midgard,” Midgard being one of the nine worlds of the ancient Norse cosmology, the one where humans live.
The sometimes cranky spiritual leader, who in photos online, with his white hair and beard, resembles an off-duty, department-store Santa Claus, was instrumental in getting Asatru recognized in 1993 by the Arizona Department of Corrections through a lawsuit in federal court. He serves as a contract employee of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, advising corrections facilities on the practice of Asatru behind bars.
“A lot of the guys in prison support us,” Murray says. “I support them. I got them their rights. I protect them.”
With Murray’s guidance, Asatru became central to Perkins’ life behind bars. On the outside, family and friends say the religion helped Perkins create a sense of stability and community, which, along with a family he loved and his passion for tattooing, kept him out of trouble.
His Northern Roots kindred supplied a support group for him and the other ex-cons who populate its ranks. Though Northern Roots is a heathen kindred — heathen being another name for a follower of Asatru — the group participated in the wider pagan community, joining in Phoenix’s annual Pagan Pride Day and attending pagan rituals at the Irish Cultural Center and other venues to mark the winter and summer solstices and the spring and autumn equinoxes.
As the elected Godi of the kindred, Perkins reveled in his role as a Viking chief. His wife and children wore T-shirts emblazoned with othala runes. He and his fellow kinsmen staged ceremonies known as blots and sembles, where homemade mead — a fermented beverage made of honey that tastes like malt liquor on steroids — is drunk out of cattle horns.
When Perkins fought in SCA battles, he would outfit himself from head to toe in medieval armor, sometimes wearing an actual wolf skin, like the fearsome Viking warriors of yore known as berserkers. And when he was in a playful mood, he might put on a headpiece that looks like a Batman mask with two long, black horns protruding from it. Invariably, if he was out and about, people would stop him to score a selfie.
Asatru may also have helped Perkins battle a lifelong addiction to hard drugs, though he continued to drink and smoke marijuana.
During a YouTube video shot in 2013 at that year’s Wolfstock, he talked about the importance of the name “Wolfskin,” which he said came from an Old Norse saga and referred to “he who dons the wolf skin” to battle one’s appetites. “The wolf is your bestial nature,” he explained to the camera. “[It’s] your greed, your gluttony, your seven deadly sins that you’re blessed with as a human being. It’s your animal instinct.
“It’s not about embracing your animal instinct,” he continued, “it’s about learning to control it. It’s important that you be able to defend yourself, to be able to defend your family, to be able to defend your country.”
Perkins liked to celebrate his heathen lifestyle by singing his signature song, “21st-Century Viking.” The song was a sort of anthem for Perkins, and he can be seen belting it out it in a 2015 YouTube video in a raspy, high-pitched buzzsaw of a voice.
Based on a poem of the same name by white nationalist writer Ron McVan, whom Perkins dubbed “a hero of ours” to his Wolfstock audience, the main stanza is full of swagger and chest-thumping:
I’m a 21st-century Viking, and I’m a badass to the bone
All my enemies fear me, they leave my ass alone
My symbol is a hammer, and I hold that hammer high
If you see me on the battle field, you’ll know the reason why.
It wasn’t long after singing that song for the last time that Jubal Dean Perkins met his doom.