A Face Worth a Thousand Angry Words

Face tattoos violate cultural norms. Why did this cop killer do this to himself?

June 27, 2007 — -- Looking into a cold blooded killer's eyes is haunting enough. But that experience can be even more terrifying when the killer's scalp and face are covered with tattoos signifying violence and hate.

Curtis Allgier, an inmate at a Utah prison, shot a corrections officer to death Monday while he was out of the prison at a doctor's appointment.

Allgier has the words "skin head" with multiple swastikas tattooed on his forehead. Swords and symbols are etched on his cheeks and chin, and the space between his nose and upper lip is tattooed with the name of the metalcore band Hatebreed. Even the insides of his ears are tattooed.

In the last decade tattooing, once the realm of sailors and bikers, has become much more mainstream in the United States. It's not at all unusual to walk down the street and see the occasional butterfly on an ankle, a koi on the lower back or a Celtic band around a bicep. But tattoo experts say it's a different kind of person who wants his or her entire face inked.

"To do it on the face so prominently is very unusual," Terisa Green, author of "Ink: The Not-Just-Skin-Deep Guide to Getting a Tattoo," told ABC News.

Facial Tattoos Trigger Debate

Many traditional tattoo parlors refuse to tattoo faces, forcing people who want their cheeks, chin, nose, or forehead inked to seek out "inkslingers," or those who ink their clients out of their bedrooms and vans.

"Most tattoo studios will refuse to do those kinds of tattoos on the face, or antisocial ones. If you really want that kind of tattoo, you will have to go far and wide. … A lot of tattoo studios will be thinking down the road, you're going to regret that," said Green.

The permanence of the tattoos and the prominence of the facial presentation makes some artists hesitate.

"People have come in and asked us to do facial tattoos, and I think it's a terrible idea," said the renowned tattoo artist Scott Campbell, who owns Saved Tattoo in Brooklyn, N.Y. "People's faces are such an important way to how they communicate. It's such a bold statement that takes place over an extreme period of time, it obscures someone of anonymity. … You can never just be a person walking down the street. You'll be the person walking down the street with that tattoo."

Violating Cultural Norms

While it's not every day that you see facial tattoos, they are not unprecedented.

The Maori leaders of New Zealand signed treaties by re-creating their moko, or personal facial tattoos. These designs are still used to identify the wearer as a member of a certain family and to symbolize a person's achievements in life.

"These tattoos are very positive. They have been relative to high achievers. … They demonstrate achievement, status and lineage," said Green.

But why would someone in modern America want this branding for the rest of his or her life?

Green said Allgier's facial tattoos are an extreme mark of anti-conformity.

"I would be fairly confident in saying that there are other tattoos on the face that are part of the cultural norms of other cultures, but this individual was not aware of them," said Green. "My suspicion for that individual is that they were trying to violate our cultural norms."

"It's a very telling thing about the state of someone's mind and self-esteem for them to disfigure their face," said Douglas Kent Hall, the author of "Prison Tattoos."

Hall added, "I don't know what his mental state is. … Who knows what a psychologist would say or psychiatrist, but I think the fact that the guy would have the nerve to write his description on his face is … it tells you pretty much what he's about."

Campbell said the psychological effects of having the face covered entirely can be severe -- and permanent. Allgier's face reflects his oppositional stance to the world and ensures everyone will see it -- including employers, landlords, creditors and law enforcers -- for the rest of his life.

"We all might have self-destructive tendencies, or the desire to separate ourselves from society as a personal rebellion," said Campbell. "What's really dangerous is the permanence of that decision, and he'll always be … from that moment on … every single person he meets will always treat him differently."

Allgier's Symbols

Allgier has a lot going on on his face. He has everything from the swastika to a band name, from the "property of Jolene" to a sword on the right cheek.

Hall said the swastika, while it has been adopted as the symbol of white supremacists, had meaning in other cultures before Nazi Germany.

"The swastika is a real mark of the Aryan brotherhood," said Hall. "There are a lot of swastikas in Native American art. And you know, that design is also in the pyramids and in the temples in Tibet. It marks the place of Buddhist temples in Japan. It has a huge history, but the whole idea that Hitler appropriated it has made these guys think that this is who they want to be."

Campbell said his shop won't have anything to do with words like "skinhead" or swastikas. He speculates Allgier probably got his tattoos in prison out of a need to be a part of something bigger than his jail cell.

"You hear a lot of stories of people claiming allegiance in prison, just for the sake of belonging to a group, to create camaraderie in jail," said Campbell.

Hall said prison tattoos are also a defense mechanism, used to display toughness.

"One of the interesting things about tattoos in prison is they are badges, and a lot of guys get certain kinds of tattoos because they want to seem tough and it's a protection against other inmates," he said. "It's a predatory place. There are gangs inside and a lot of guys will have gang tattoos even if they really don't belong to them.… They want to appear like they're from the gang."

Documents filed after Allgier's arrest Monday said there could have been more victims besides the guard he shot in the head. A fast-food employee is reportedly alive only because the gun Allgier had didn't fire.

It doesn't appear the world will have to worry about Allgier for a while, and his face won't be preventing him from getting any jobs in the "real world" anytime soon.

Allgier is being held without bail for investigation of eight charges, including aggravated murder, and he could be sentenced to death. Allgier was originally in the Utah Department of Corrections on a parole violation. His criminal record includes burglary, forgery and at least one weapons crime, according to court records.

ABC News' Andrew Chang contributed reporting for this story.

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