Former white supremacist slowly erasing his past

News-Sentinel, Indiana/June 4, 2016

By Justin Kenny

When it comes to first impressions, Shane Johnson doesn't present a good one.

Doused in the tattooed ink of hate from neck to arms to torso, the reformed white supremacist hopes to erase the eye-catching reminders of his racist past.

With the help of New Republic Tattoo and owner Donny Manco, Johnson, 25, is getting that chance, one session at a time.

From the beginning

Johnson, a native of Shelbyville, was indoctrinated into the beliefs of white supremacy from the very beginning, with his father being the driving factor. Throughout his childhood and adolescence, Johnson was programmed to believe in the superiority of whites while directing vitriol at people of color, Jews and others.

By the age of 16, Johnson had his arms completely covered in tattoos, many of which represented subtle and not-so-subtle nods at white supremacy.

Next was his throat, tatted up with symbols of hate. Included were a pair of numbers below the chin, "88" as an abbreviation for "Heil Hitler" and "14" for the white supremacist slogan, "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children."
Tattoos are used by many groups to not only convey their message, but also to take pride in what they believe.

"Your white skin is your uniform and the tattoos are medals for your uniform," Johnson says.

Rise to leadership

Johnson ran with several different skinhead groups over the years and even a Ku Klux Klan outfit.

Living with his father in Kokomo, Johnson eventually became the leader of that city's skinhead faction. By 2013, he had successfully joined the skinhead and Klan groups together, something extremely rare.

"Skinheads and the Klan do not get along for a variety of reasons," Johnson says. "The primary reason is that while skinheads are pagans, the Klan cloud their beliefs through Christianity."

Through this time, Johnson grew close to a girl who lived across the street from him in Kokomo. Tiffany Gregoire is a native Georgian who accepted the white supremacist for who he was, although she did not agree with it.

She immediately got to work on Johnson.

Planting the seed

A petite, soft-spoken girl with an infectious smile, Gregoire is not who you would envision taking on the white-power culture. Yet that is what she did. From the very beginning, Gregoire,22, made it a priority to find any possible way to cast doubts in the mind of Johnson, to show him that his beliefs and his lifestyle were wrong.

Johnson had dated girls before outside of the groups he ran with, but the persistence that Gregoire displayed was something he did not expect.

From playing rap music to forcing Johnson to examine his thoughts to delivering slight jabs while watching a random movie, Gregoire used everything she could do try to sway Johnson.

"Sometimes he would preach back to me about what he believed, and I would say, 'No, I don't do that. That's not how I was raised,'" Gregoire says. "I was raised to love everybody. That's how I wanted him to be."

Slowly, Gregoire began to chip away at the near-impenetrable belief system that Johnson had known all his life. It helped that Johnson had also begun to question his involvement in hate groups.

Surprisingly, Gregoire's insistence on playing rap music was one of the biggest factors.

"When you're in the Klan and skinheads, you can't see hate, it's not a drug, it's just something you have," Johnson says. "That hate would lead to sadness. My idea of having fun was to turn on the saddest, craziest, hillbilly sad music.
"Sounds goofy, but when you have never been exposed to something like (rap music), then you find out you like it, you're like, 'Holy (expletive).'"

Breaking Point

Despite Gregoire's consistently poking holes in Johnson's lifestyle and logic, he remained firm in his commitment to the group he oversaw in Kokomo.

In December 2012, Johnson's father passed away. While that loss was advantageous in a way as it took away a big proponent in Johnson's ear on his way of life, in the short-term it saw Johnson spiral down ever deeper. Depression and alcoholism took hold, all while Johnson continued to debate all that he believed and had imprinted all over his body. He made erratic leadership decisions, turning to violence on a whim.

On July 4, 2013, Johnson was involved in a melee at a concert in Kokomo, brutally attacking rivals and even an innocent black man who was there with his white girlfriend with padlocks tied to bandannas.

"When I woke up in jail, that was it," Johnson says. "That was the moment when I was like, 'Man, I'm going way downhill.'

"I was so angry at that time, I think because I knew deep down I didn't really believe in what I was doing. But I felt like a traitor to my family."

Much like Gregoire's subtle preaching, Johnson's steps towards redemption were slow and methodical. At times, he would have breakthroughs, hanging out with Gregoire's friends of color without any kind of hate or judgment. He took down the Klan references in the house at Gregoire's request. But those positive moments were offset with his continued involvement with hate groups.


By the summer of 2014, Johnson was inching ever closer to leaving the world of white supremacy. He was listening to the political commentary of Bill Maher and the social criticism of George Carlin, educating himself on things outside of his normal sphere of influence. He began corresponding with socialist groups, the complete opposite of the beliefs of white supremacy.

Johnson was starting to think independently.

Then one day that summer, Johnson told Gregoire they were leaving. They took off from Kokomo without telling anyone and headed to Evansville.

In the rush to flee, Johnson neglected to pack. Three days after leaving, he returned to Kokomo to pick up some things at his house.

"Very stupid," says Johnson of the decision to return.

As soon as he pulled up to his house, members of his group descended upon the house. They questioned him, asking him where he had been and what was going out. Johnson tried to calm them down, but they knew something was up.

"A little bit of pride came in to play then," Johnson says. "I was standing there and just said, 'You know what, this is all bull (expletive). I'm not about this anymore and don't want to be about this anymore.

"It was a real tense and awkward moment."

Surprisingly, Johnson's now-former compatriots left. He gathered up some belongings and headed out, but realized he needed gas first. So he pulled into a nearby gas station and filled up. As he headed back to his car, he was violently attacked.
The skinheads were not about to let their former leader leave so easily.

Johnson ended up in the hospital with multiple injuries. He ditched Kokomo as soon as he was able, jumping around before landing in Fort Wayne.


Over the last few years, Johnson has continued to distance himself away from his former life. He sometimes receives death threats, as hate groups do not handle disenfranchised former members so well. He keeps a constant eye out for trouble while attempting to start living a normal life.

But when your body is a constant reminder of what you were, that can be tough. While he does feel bad for himself because of how he is judged for his tattoos, he feels more for those he offends.

"I walk into a gas station and pass a black guy who sees my tattoos, what is he supposed to think?" Johnson says. "He may have been having a great day, but he sees me and how I look...what's that do to him?"

Johnson has attempted to find someone to help ease his burden, to transform symbols of hatred into something, anything, else. Some tattoo parlors do not want to help because they are afraid of the repercussions, others refused him because they do business with white power groups.
Finally, Johnson was able to connect with New Republic Tattoo, which has laid out a plan to transform his body art.

"When you change your life and that stuff is still on the front of your neck, it's tough," Johnson says.

Gregoire is quick to say that Johnson is not all the way reformed. He still has his moments, ones he readily admits to.

"I still have bad thoughts about people, it's just a reaction," Johnson says. "But I look at it as my future is never going to happen if I don't forget about the past."

Johnson wants to make a difference. He wants to be able to have a job without having to wear a turtleneck every single day, but he also wants to share his experiences and show that you can change. He speaks to homeless people in Fort Wayne "just to talk with them." He works to get those interested in voting registered. He wants to talk to kids who are traveling down the wrong path. Maybe even write a book.

And he also wants his body cleared of its former, hateful message.

"It has been a struggle, but slowly I got over it," Johnson says. "Everybody I have met have been so accepting. That's how I know I'm doing something right. Plus, I feel better about myself.

"Hate is a hell of a thing. It's hard to explain, but it consumes you. I see it in a lot of people. Just let it go. Just chill."

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