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Arno Michaels’ right arm has a story to tell. Once, it was tattooed with symbols of racial hatred: a swastika, skulls and SS soldiers. But in 1998, after he’d started undergoing a conversion, he contacted a Waukesha tattoo artist, whose professional moniker is Skully, to cover up his tattoos with new ones. The first work […]

Arno Michaels’ right arm has a story to tell. Once, it was tattooed with symbols of racial hatred: a swastika, skulls and SS soldiers. But in 1998, after he’d started undergoing a conversion, he contacted a Waukesha tattoo artist, whose professional moniker is Skully, to cover up his tattoos with new ones. The first work was done in 1998, then more in 1999 and a final touch-up just last year.

“It’s tough,” says Skully. “You can’t just put anything over it. It’s like watercolor painting – you have to have the right design, so it doesn’t look like a cover-up.”

The new design is flowing, multicolored, slightly Nordic-looking, almost like a vibrant piece of abstract fabric. It banishes all the Nazi symbols of Michaels’ past. But his inner forearm still has a faint shadow of those signs, a stain that marks Michaels and the hate-driven life he lived from ages 17 to 24.

When Arno talks about his past, he leans forward, athletic and intense, almost fiercely determined to tell the truth about his years as a white-power rocker, race warrior and thug. “I hurt people,” he says. “The first time I was arrested, another guy and I were waiting in the alley behind a gay bar with fence posts to beat on whoever came out. I remember a person whose eye socket I broke. I beat people … and left them for dead.”

Michaels was drunk so often in those days, he can’t remember exactly how many people he attacked. “Lots,” he says.

Skully knew Michaels back then. “He was hard-core. I was afraid to meet the guy on the street. … Now I’m glad to help him on his road.”

It has been some road, a headlong path from wild child to adolescent punker to reckless race warrior. Along the way, alcohol fueled his worst instincts. “I was never much for drugs,” Michaels says. “Well, I did cocaine, but that was just so I could drink more.”

The road finally led to Life After Hate – the title of Arno’s first book and his website, and the name of his peacemaking organization. Alcohol has been replaced by a goal of “basic human goodness,” and Buddha has bumped Hitler off the podium. But Arno still has a lot of past to live down.

He grew up in a nice home in Mequon.

“My parents loved me dearly,” he says. “At my worst, my dad would still tell me how proud he was of me. I was pretty much allowed to run amok.

“I walked at 9 months. I could figure out how to open any door. I’d smear Vaseline and baby powder on the walls and draw pictures or write on it. One night, my parents found me in the kitchen, dancing on the stove, with all the burners turned up as high as they would go.” They didn’t send for an exorcist, but did what any reasonable Mequon parents would do. They consulted their pediatrician.

“Our pediatrician said, ‘Don’t worry,’ I was ‘gifted.’ Today, a pediatrician would have me pumped full of meds and make me a little robot. God bless my pediatrician and my parents. Actually, my parents were more worried about my brother – he was so quiet. His first words were ‘thank you.’ Mine was ‘no.’

“I was a constant pain in the ass. My parents put up with my bullshit, and they were always there.”

Arno’s mother was very involved in the 1960s Madison hippie scene. “I was a sort of beat/hippie,” she says, “believing we would make the world better.” She still believes in those things – peace, love, justice – though Arno probably made that hard. “It was … a trying time,” she says. “Parts of his book, I just can’t read. They’re too painful. But I never would disown him. I’m his mother!”

Her theory on how Arno got so toxic: “He was an idealist then, as he is now. Except then, he wanted to piss people off. That gave him power.

In his teens, Arno and a couple friends attended a white-power-oriented School for Gifted Boys summer session in Otto, N.C. The school was founded by Ben Klassen, self-proclaimed Pontifex Maximus of the infamous Church of the Creator. But the Creator in Klassen’s version of the story was the white race.

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“It was a sort of boot camp for the Church of the Creator,” Michaels recalls. “We spent one week studying the books and another doing paramilitary training. The second week was much more fun and involved much drinking to excess.”

He and his pals were “very into the ideology of Creativity,” Michaels recalls, but pretty disdainful of the staff. “We had so much fun drinking and doing wild shit, like rappelling down 300-foot mine shafts and flying down ragin’ rivers on a rope and learning to make man-traps, that we let that part slide.”

Michaels recalls Klassen as “a doddering man in his late 70s.” He “would be more at home on a Florida golf course than founding a violent hate group. We gave him a fair amount of respect, even though we had to convince ourselves he deserved it. We got rowdier and rowdier, ending up beating one of Klassen’s flunkies.

“Oh, and as homoerotic as it sounds, there wasn’t anything going on but the hate, violence and drinking.”

By age 17, Arno had become a vivid version of his own worst self, in pursuit of some twisted idealism – a planet totally ruled by white people. Being outrageous suited his temperament, and racism, he says, is always there in the American air.

“There was definitely a feeling of plugging into something, like it was there for cultivation, and once it got whipped up, people were drawn both to us and against us.”

Arno’s great weapon in the war he waged was his band, Centurion. It embodied the Viking warrior myth that drove Arno’s imagination: To die of old age was shameful; far better to die in the great final war and be carried off to Valhalla.

Listening to Centurion on a record, what hits you is the skill of the performance. The way intensity builds from a sort of martial rock sound to a raw metal declaration of race hate and race pride. Arno’s voice suggests a throat filled with metal filings. (“I was never very good at singing, but I could shout,” he says.) The songs are a call to total violence: “The blood is gonna flow” … “This planet is ours/We’ll ever fight/Until the world’s white!” Arno on video, shirtless, prowling the stage, shouting those words for the crowd: It’s absolutely chilling to see that kind of back-alley hate.

Ironically, Centurion was largely a studio band, Michaels says. They played only half a dozen live performances. But Arno not only sang the message of RaHoWa!! – Racial Holy War. He lived it. That’s the rule of his life. If you preach it, practice it. If you talk it, then walk it.

In his 20s, Arno got involved in the rave scene. It had some of the same intense appeal as the skinhead life – an underground culture generally disapproved of by authorities. The drug use, semi-secret locations and sense of being an insider with other outsiders – all of it was familiar to Michaels. He would not be the first skinhead attracted to and then changed by the rave scene.

What made raves different was their references to peace and respect – and their inclusiveness. Michaels remembers a little light going on in his head at a Chicago rave. As he danced and felt very much a part of it all, he realized the dancers were black and white and Asian, gay and straight. Once, a girl he was dancing with asked about the Nazi tattoos on his arm. “Oh, I don’t believe that stuff anymore,” Michaels told her, and she asked why he didn’t get rid of them.

A bigger revelation came when he saw his daughter at an MATC day care center, playing happily with children of many colors.

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Michaels was abandoning his skinhead phase, but he did not go quietly into that good life. He read hungrily, talked to many different people, asked questions and began moving toward a new kind of activism.

He founded Life After Hate as an activist organization and started a Web magazine by the same name. He is a tireless lecturer and teacher, part of a local and international movement of former violent extremists that, in the wake of 9/11, is a hopeful sign.

This past June, he was asked to participate in a Summit Against Violent Extremism in Dublin. The event was hosted by the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations and Google’s new think tank, Google Ideas. Former Colombian FARC guerillas, Islamic fundamentalists, neo-Nazis, IRA members and others came together to talk about their onetime commitment to violence and how they finally rejected it.

“It was amazing,” says Michaels. “All these people from all over the world. Formers, as they’re called, and also their victims were there. I saw an English woman meet the IRA guy, now rejecting his former life, who had killed her husband. Their challenge was reconciliation, to leave hate behind.”

Locally, Arno meets with groups throughout the city, but probably most intensely in the inner city. Tanya Cromartie, director of the Summer of Peace Initiative, saw Arno’s website. “I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I set up a meeting, but I was scared of him, the kids were scared of him at first, once they knew his past. But the kids, inner-city kids, related to him – they were excited and proud to know him. He’s a sign of hope for them. They love him.”

In September, Michaels joined the group of counter-protestors at the Nazi rally in West Allis. As he gave a speech, a heckler shouted “Traitor!”

His message to the crowd, he says, was “a quick loving-kindness meditation,” asking people to close their eyes and visualize someone dear to them, then consider if the world they encountered here was what they wanted for that loved one. Perhaps a bit high-minded for such a supercharged moment in the rain on Greenfield Avenue.

In fact, many of the 2,000 or so liberals were itching to can the inspirational stuff and confront the small group of neo-Nazis behind a police line and flip the bird, shout insults, and wave flags and homemade signs at the swastika crowd. And the swastika crowd wanted to flip the bird, shout insults and wave hybrid Nazi-American flags and homemade signs at the peaceniks.

“The hard-core lefties were no more interested in peace than the neos were,” Michaels says. He is still telling people things they may not want to hear, though now in a far more reflective way. “Some of the demonstrators said things like, ‘I won’t show compassion to a Nazi!’ I think deeming a person unworthy of compassion is a fairly sure definition of hate.”

Today, Michaels’ biggest challenge is forgiving himself for his past, the dark events only he knows about, the beatdowns he gave to others. There are moments when he retreats from his constant activity – the public appearances, his writing, publishing and youth work – and meditates.

He’s a regular now at the Shambhala Center and at Turner Hall. At Shambhala, he sits; at Turner Hall, he scales the rock climbing wall. Sitting or climbing, he’s dedicated to strengthening Good Arno’s spirit, and to understanding – maybe even making peace with – his years as Bad Arno.

But Bad Arno still lives on the Internet, playing with his old band Centurion, as nasty and lively as the day it began. Michaels still gets fan mail as the hate-filled voice of Centurion, and the band was recently invited to appear at a music festival in Germany, where it has followers in the nation that invented Nazism.

Jim Hazard is a contributing writer for Milwaukee Magazine. Write to him at letters@milwaukeemagazine.com. 

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