TRIBUTE: Little John colored the world

by Ogi Overman

Little John Bury’s life was every bit as colorful as the body art that adorned most of his torso. But by its bitter end it had all faded to black.

John David Bury, 44, was a storyteller, but rather than on the printed page, his tales came to life on the human body. He was a renaissance man, a world traveler, a modern day Will Rogers who never met a man he didn’t like. He fancied himself a pirate, but one who was able to glide easily among social strata, never bothering to differentiate the cultivated from the hoi polloi, the pure at heart from the miscreant, the high achiever from the outcast. A former Navy man, he weathered the storms of life with the dignity befitting an admiral but with the humility of one who’d been battered by the unforgiving sea.

The raging, relentless ocean that marked the first half of his life had given way to an undulating calm during the second. And for more than 17 years he became a beacon to those lost seafarers, guiding them gently through the shoals into a safe harbor.

“Little John was a larger-than-life figure,” said the man who was holding his hand as he took his last breath, known only as Big Mike. “He spent ten formative years in prison and turned his life around, got sober and put his life together and became an internationally recognized artist. He was a guy who loved life and traveled around the world spreading joy and goodwill. He did things he never imagined he’d be able to do, and he touched literally thousands of people.”

He touched them both with his ink machine and with his soul. The manager of one of his two Greensboro studios, Jason Spainhour, estimated that in his 25-year career Little John tattooed as many as 35,000 people but more importantly, left his mark in intangible ways as well.

“He helped out anybody and everybody,” said Spainhour. “He gave jobs to people even when he didn’t have jobs to give them. That’s how I got in. We were close friends, companions and business partners all rolled in one. If I ever needed something, that’s the dude I went to.”

Richard H. shared both the small rooms of the tattoo studio and the larger rooms of a recovery program with Little John.

“He did two huge thigh pieces for me and a couple of other smaller ones,” said Richard, “and we spent many a day sitting there talking about recovery and trying to do the right thing and helping others. His profession gave him the opportunity to talk to a lot of people, sitting in that little six-by-six room slinging ink, and he knew how to use the situation to help those who needed help.”

Sometimes folks needed much more than pep talk, though, and Little John unhesitatingly took them into his home to dry them out.

“There’s no telling how many wet drunks and newcomers slept on his couch,” said Big Mike. “As recently as a month ago, even when he was struggling, he took a guy in who was trying to get clean. That’s what he did.”

Little John was born and raised outside of Detroit, and moved to Lynchburg, Va. where he opened his first tattoo parlor. He married, had a daughter, and moved to Greensboro in 1992. The marriage ultimately dissolved but business flourished, and he founded the NC Tattoo Convention 14 years ago, which attracted cream-of-the-crop artists from the world over. Many of those artists flew into town as news of his death spread.

“We were getting calls from California three hours after we heard about it,” said Spainhour. “Some of them need to get back before the memorial service next Saturday, so we’re all getting together for a dinner in his honor Monday.”

Spainhour added that the convention will continue. “That will be a good way to remember him each year,” he said.

Bury sustained a gunshot wound with a .45 caliber revolver at his home on Jan. 29. He died the following day.

“We are not in a position to be able to make a formal cause of death,” Guilford County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Arch Embler said. “It is an apparent suicide. We’re still doing the gunshot residue tests.”

Rather than dwell on how he died, one who perhaps knew him as well as anyone, Reid M., preferred to remember instead how he lived.

“I’ll remember the guy who got a hundred bikers at Sturgis [the world’s largest motorcycle rally] with hair and beards down to here, covered head to toe with tattoos, to stand around in a circle, hold hands and recite the Serenity Prayer,” said Reid. “I’ll remember the guy who would stop at nothing to help his fellow man. That’s the Little John I knew and loved.”

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