Inking over hate
Roughly a year ago, Aerial Silvanus, born Aaron Sill, started to post photos of her male-to-female transformation on social media, taking care to conceal the swastika tattooed on her chest.
In photographs, she would either arrange her wig so the hair draped over it, or she'd adorn the image with digital “stickers” to conceal a symbol that she said had lost all meaning to her years prior.
“Before, I always wore T-shirts or what have you, so no one saw it. But when I switched to wearing camisoles and things like that when I came out as transgender, it became very obvious, and everyone could see it,” said Silvanus by phone from her home in Chillicothe. “When I went anywhere, people weren't looking me in the eye, they were looking at it. … The last thing I wanted was to end up [being attacked and put] in the hospital for a symbol I got when I felt a certain way, and now I don't feel that way anymore.”
Silvanus' longtime friend, Scott Fate of Fate Tattoo in the North Campus neighborhood, noticed her attempts to hide the hate symbol and reached out with an offer to cover it, free of charge. In the early spring, Fate outlined a new tattoo atop the swastika. Silvanus initially requested “anything feminine,” finally settling on a chrysanthemum flower because in some European countries the blossom is presented upon someone's death. “So it kind of symbolizes death and rebirth to me,” she said. “The passing of old ideas.”
Fate completed work on the new tattoo shortly after the August Unite the Right white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and shared the results on Facebook, along with an offer to provide free coverup work on hate tattoos, no questions asked.
“I myself was in a state of rage about the [Charlottesville] incident,” Fate said. “The first one that I did, initially I did it for free because I wanted it to be one less symbol that my children or anyone else has to see. But when I did [Sylvanus'] tattoo and posted the picture, I wrote, ‘Why not get rid of all of them?' This is a tangible thing we could do to correct the issue.”
After reading the post, tattoo artist and rapper Rich Regal of Modified Tattoo in Lancaster conferred with Fate, who worked at Modified for nearly four years before launching his own company in March. Inspired by Fate, Regal launched a campaign he termed Project Hate Coverup, with the aim of providing free coverup work on hateful ink. The project kicked off in late August, and Modified staffers have already completed a dozen coverups, with Regal accounting for half of the total. In addition, tattoo shops nationwide have picked up the cause, and Regal said he'd been in contact with a television executive who broached the possibility of filming a documentary series built around the venture.
“A lot of these people, because of the [life] decisions they've made, can't get the finances to get rid of the tattoos. I know quite a few people who have been in prison and gotten these tattoos, and it's really hard to just go out and get a job out of prison,” said Regal, seated inside Modified for a late-September interview. “We're in a position we can fix that, at least to some degree. Every tattoo counts. It's like with the music, where we say every fan counts. If we can fix one [tattoo], that's not just fixing that person's life. It's helping everyone who sees them on the beach or everyone who sees them at the tanning salon. Fixing that one tattoo is affecting potentially hundreds of people.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) tracked 917 active hate groups in the United States in 2016, a slight uptick from the previous year, with the biggest rise coming via anti-Muslim hate groups, which grew from 34 in 2015 to 101 last year, an increase of 197 percent. Along with the increase in these groups, the SPLC has also encountered a rise in the usage of symbols by which members identify themselves, which can often take the form of tattoos.
“There's definitely some appeal to the permanence of it. A lot of these guys, the way they talk about their ideology, it's like, ‘My skin is my armor. It's my heritage.' Many of them harken back to this idea of race or culture as essential, so it makes sense you would put something like that on your skin,” said the SPLC's Keegan Hankes, who also noted a rise in more buttoned-up, clean-cut white nationalist groups that eschew tattoos in an effort to soften their image and better blend in with the mainstream. “Think about Charlottesville and all the different groups you saw on display there, and all the different symbols they had to distinguish themselves, despite many of them having almost the exact same ideologies.”
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) maintains a hate symbol database that currently numbers 178. Entries include well-known Nazi insignia such as the swastika and the SS Bolts — a symbol derived from the German Schutzstaffel (SS) led by Heinrich Himmler and tasked with guarding concentration camps, among other duties — and more recent, nebulous entries like Pepe the Frog, a character created by cartoonist Matt Furie and often employed in racist internet memes by members of white nationalist groups. (The ADL site notes that since Pepe is not “bigoted in nature, it is important to examine use of the meme only in context,” and Furie has actively campaigned to distance his creation from these hate groups.)
“It requires quite a bit of discussion and forethought before something ends up on [the registry]. You don't want to create a situation where you give a symbol more life than it has already,” said Hankes. “Obviously, some have really heavy historic connotations or connections to fascism or neo-Nazism. But with some of the more coded entries — again, Pepe is a great example — you have to put some weight on thinking through those designations.”
Locally, a handful of tattoo shops have run into race- and hate-based controversies amid the backdrop of a growing white nationalist movement. In May, Dudleyz Tatt2ooz in the Hilltop area found itself at the center of a social media uproar after photos surfaced of a woman with SS Bolts tattooed on her face promoting an artist at the shop. Around the same time, Mike Moses, owner and artist at Cauldron Tattoo in the Short North, split with a business partner whose social media activity linked them with white nationalist groups.
In a June 3 Instagram post, Moses addressed the association, writing, in part, “Hateful ideologies and their sometimes more subtle symbolism have found ways to gain ground in many aspects of society and remarkably the tattoo industry. … Effective yesterday, Cauldron has seen a shake-up in personnel to more accurately reflect our ethos and goals. … For me, it has opened up a much larger dialogue that NEEDS to happen for the sake of our community, our country, and our world. I urge that dialogue to continue for anyone who has felt discouraged, offended, hurt, confused, or even angered.”
Though Moses declined further comment, referringAliveto the Instagram post, as recently as late August automated e-mail replies from the business included confirmation of the June business separation and concluded with the hashtag #NOHOMEFORHATE. (Moses' former business partner could not be reached for comment.)
Dudleyz Tatt2ooz owner Darrell “Dudley” Ross, in contrast, struck a comparatively defensive tone, charging the SS-tattooed woman in question was never a shop employee, but rather the romantic partner of a former tattoo artist. “Nothing against girls, but I just don't hire them,” he said. “Tattoo shops, there's a lot of stuff said or done inside of them that someone could later construe as sexist. … If you've got a girl in that environment, she could be like, ‘Oh, I was sexually harassed. I was this. I was that.' There's no reason to put me or anyone in that situation.”
Ross also positioned himself as the subject of an internet conspiracy driven by online commenters who had never set foot in his shop, and he chalked up interest in the controversy to the idea that “right now, racism sells” and acknowledged the prevalence of hate tattoos while downplaying any connection to his business.
“I've owned a tattoo shop for 20 years and one time — and I'll take a lie-detector test — we literally tattooed a swastika on a white dude and a black panther on a black dude in the same room at the same time,” he said. “Do those kinds of tattoos exist? Of course. Me, personally, Dudley, I refuse to tattoo ‘666' on anyone — I always have — and I refuse to tattoo a swastika or a pentagram on any human being. That's how I am.”
“That girl was literally a three-month span of a 20-year career. She was just a non-person that was in a couple of pictures. That's how it boiled down,” Ross continued. “Do I think people should get those tattoos? Of course not. And would I cover them for free? Of course not. This is a business.”
The current national climate has raised awareness among tattoo shop owners, though many have long embraced unofficial policies barring employees, who function as independent contractors, from pursuing hate-based work.
“We don't have a sheet that says it, but it's generally accepted we won't do anything racist or white supremacist or hateful,” said Mike Thomas, owner and artist at Downtown's Defining Skin Tattoo. “Our shop, we're very open-minded or progressive in terms of how we view the world. On our waiver we ask if you have a preferred pronoun. We've gone to a lot of lengths to create a culture where people are sensitive to what's going on in the world. I could say, yes, I'm more cognizant it's something I have to be aware of and careful about, but it's not something I have to tell anyone here, like, ‘Hey, watch out for this.' Everybody who works here, I think, tends to be pretty educated on what's going on in the world and wants to stay on the side of peace and equality.”
On the surface, Rich Regal would appear to be an unlikely candidate to champion the cause of social justice — a term that would undoubtedly make him cringe. During our interview, Regal wore a baseball cap adorned with a cartoon of his own visage and accompanied by the phrase “white trash,” and he once fired an employee whose liberal-minded political activism, which included wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt to work in the tattoo shop, started to become a business liability in the small, rural, deeply conservative town of Lancaster.
“This is not Chicago or New York or L.A. Here, it's very conservative. … Do I agree with everything the officials in this town do? Absolutely not. Do I agree this is a prominently racist area? Yes. That's why we're doing what we're doing,” said the burly, heavily tattooed Regal. “We want to show not all of us from this small town are like that. We're assholes, sure, but we're not hateful. The only thing I hate is hate. And diet food.”
At the same time, Regal, 35, understands and appreciates the effort needed to change one's life for the better. The artist grew up poor — he described living in a trailer with holes worn in the floor — absent his biological father and under the rules of a stepdad with whom he had a contentious relationship. (The two have only recently started to make amends.)
In his early 20s, Regal purchased his first tattoo shop, Natas, or “Satan” backwards (he quickly changed the name to Skin Deep), only to have even this modicum of success spin wildly out of control as he embraced a party lifestyle that cost him his business, many friends and very nearly his longtime partner of almost two decades. “When my old lady left,” Regal said, trailing off. “I wanted my family back.”
“Now I'm still doing the rock-star life, but I go home every night to my family and feed my goats and feed my chickens. I take care of my dog. I take my daughter to get her tooth pulled,” he continued. “I found a way to balance everything.”
Even the name of his current tattoo shop, Modified, which he opened in 2010, is a reflection of the adjustments he's made to his own existence to be a better partner to his “old lady” of 19 years and a better father and role model to his own children than his biological dad ever was to him.
“Every time I run into someone in the city, they know my dad and they're like, ‘He was a badass. He used to beat everybody's ass,'” Regal said. “I lived that life. I used to get in fights every week. I sold drugs. That's not what I want my kids to hear: ‘I knew your dad and he sold me drugs.'”
A similar change began to take place within Silvanus after she was discharged from the Army in 2007. Around that time, she started to make efforts to downplay the swastika she had tattooed on her chest in 2002, nearly a year after enrolling in the military in lieu of criminal probation. Silvanus, who has identified as transgender since 2001, said she initially got the tattoo as a means of externalizing an internal anger that stemmed from being denied the opportunity to live the life she wanted while residing in a small, closed-minded town where citizens regularly drove tractors to work.
“For about a decade and a half, I walked in a shell of a body I didn't feel was mine, but it was the only one that was acceptable,” said Silvanus, who is of Romanian and German decent and whose grandparents immigrated to the United States to escape Nazi Germany. “I don't like to be around people — I'm an introvert by nature — and I externalize that as aggression. A lot of the symbols I put on me were designed to do just that: keep people away. … I have upside-down crosses. I have a heartagram (a combination heart/pentagram) on my arm. I put a lot of symbols on me just to keep people away. I didn't want to get to know people. I didn't care to know people.”
Tattoo coverup work is as much science as art, according to Regal, employing contrast, highlights and shadow rather than impenetrable blocks of black ink.
“People automatically think you have to cover all of it in black and it has to be tribal or an eight-ball, but no,” he said. “Most of my cover-ups are not done with straight black work. It's manipulation of highlights and shadows, and if you have a really dark shadow you have to have a really bright highlight to contrast it.”
Regal described transforming a swastika outlined in heavy black ink on one subject's chest into a slice of pizza, distracting the eye by free-hand inking melted cheese oozing over the man's shoulder. “I was like, ‘If I can pull this up here and distract the eye with some dripping cheese, that will pull you away from down here where I'm covering this up,'” he said. “Even though it's covered and gone, you need something to distract from it. Then when you look at the tattoo you see a slice of pizza, and not a slice of pizza that's covering up a swastika.”
These coverups can be transformative emotionally as well as physically. Amber Parsons, whose former boyfriend tattooed his gang insignia on her wrist — “Basically representing I was with him and that whole scene,” as she explained — now looks down and sees flowers in place of the crown insignia, courtesy of Regal. “It was a chapter in my life I wanted to close, and it was the last part of it I hadn't closed,” Parsons said. “Now that it's covered up, I can look down at my arm and be proud of something that's on me rather than fixating on the mistakes I made in the past.”
“My posture changed afterwards [because] I didn't have to worry about someone seeing such a heinous symbol on me,” said Silvanus, who can now comfortably walk as tall as she stands, or “6 feet 6 inches in heels,” as she described it. “The feelings behind [the tattoo] dissipated long ago. It was really a symbol of the old me. Now, I can finally start a new life.”