DUBUQUE, Iowa (AP) — In his Dubuque tattoo parlor, Greg Howell can cover up a swastika, Wolfsangel sword and stylized runic symbols, but his art only extends skin deep.
Hatred soaks into a person’s soul and drawing the poison out is a journey that, for some, takes years.
“We choose the wrong path in life sometimes,” he told the Dubuque Telegraph Herald. “It’s OK to change course.”
Howell, 46, the owner of Dubuque Tattoo Club, is a bold designer and an imposing presence. His arms are a canvas filled with scowling skulls, sharp lines, feathers and teeth.
What cannot be seen are three tattoos, born from ignorance, the designs of which he cannot bring himself to disclose publicly.
Howell had them covered after he left the fold of white supremacy almost two decades ago.
He burned the accouterments of his affiliation in his backyard, pouring gasoline atop a pile of white power albums, propaganda and a jacket that bore a swastika.
It was a history he could veil from scrutiny, but this month, he chose not to.
Howell recently signed onto an “erasing hate” campaign, joining other tattoo artists across the country who will cover up racist or gang-related tattoos at no cost to those who cannot afford to pay for the procedure themselves.
But Howell believes he must own his past first, else be labeled a hypocrite.
So, in a social media post, he told the world: “I was a Nazi skinhead.”
Howell grew up in “The Flats,” a neighborhood on Dubuque’s north side identified as having the highest concentration of poverty in the city.
His parents divorced when he was in sixth grade. In his father’s custody, Howell moved multiple times — first within Dubuque, then to Maquoketa, Iowa, Richland Center, Wis., and, finally, Moline, Ill., where he graduated high school.
Howell described himself as an angry kid, lashing out at people when confronted.
“It was hard for me to keep friends,” he said. “It was hard for me to feel like a part of anything.”
Howell returned to Dubuque in 1994, picking up a job at the former Dubuque Packing Co. Some of his co-workers were skinheads.
Off the clock, they gathered for drinks, partied and rocked at white power concerts and rallies. All the while, Howell digested their beliefs.
“They think white people are better than anybody else, that there is a conspiracy in the world to mix races and eliminate the white race,” he said. “Their idea is that they are going to stop that from happening.”
Howell recalls that some of the men were addicted to drugs and others just angry. He calls them “knuckleheads.” But still, they constituted a brotherhood.
“I thought I found my place,” Howell said. “At the time, it felt like a good thing. … They make you feel like you’re one of them.”
He acquired three tattoos — on his wrist, his arm and his leg. One of them, he inked himself.
Although Howell’s compatriots were not affiliated with a national hate group, the Southern Poverty Law Center tracked 940 such entities in 2019.
Two are active across Iowa. The National Alliance, a neo-Nazi formation, calls for the eradication of Jews and other races and the creation of an all-white state. Similarly, the hate group Patriot Front advocates for the formation of a white ethnostate.
Many hate groups have appropriated images, such as the iron cross and Confederate flag, to use as symbols of their tenets.
“People of color are very conscious of these symbols and what they mean,” said Jacqueline Hunter, director of Multicultural Family Center in Dubuque. “When you see the Confederate flag, … as a black person, we know that symbol has so much connection and meaning to a time in this country when we were enslaved.”
Offensive symbols create barriers, she said.
“You might be the sweetest person in the world, but once that (barrier is) up, that’s a very hard space for me to navigate,” Hunter said. “People’s perception becomes their reality.”
After Howell’s son was born in 1996, he began to drift away from his buddies.
He cannot pinpoint a specific moment the mythology began to unravel, just a sense that the world his peers described was not the one in which he lived.
Howell left the plant for long-haul trucking, which took him across the country.
For 14 years, he encountered all kinds of people as he filled up at gas stations, unloaded freight at docks and warehouses and supped at restaurants.
As Howell’s attitudes changed, so did his three tattoos. He had them transformed into a skull, a memorial and a biker.
“Artists, in general, are pretty open and understanding,” Howell said.
Although he dabbled in drawing throughout his childhood, Howell did not attempt a professional art career until 2003. He apprenticed at area tattoo parlors for years before launching Dubuque Tattoo Club in 2012.
Now, instead of rallies, Howell travels to professional conventions.
“It changes you,” Howell said. “I found a new brotherhood that’s better. One that’s about love, man, and having fun.”
Leaving a hate group, like any gang, can be dangerous. A person who bears a racist tattoo but fails to toe the party line can be identified and threatened with violence, Howell said.
The symbols also are permanent reminders of mistakes and pain.
The cost of tattoo cover-ups can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars depending on the size.
Howell recalled a scenario in which a person inked with a swastika visits a public swimming pool. The tattoo is large, costly to remove and the person lacks the financial means.
“Everyone around there is being affected by this stupid tattoo,” Howell said. “I don’t want them to have money be a factor in whether they can get rid of it.”
To date, Howell has scheduled six appointments.
One man’s is the word “hate,” which Howell will change into a Grim Reaper. Another client has a Gangster Disciple symbol on his chest, atop which Howell will tattoo a skull and filigree.
Hatred is learned and can be unlearned, he said. Erasing hatred through art is a movement far larger than himself.
“I just wanted to put something positive out there,” Howell said. “Let’s do it together.”