Tattoos as therapy, pain as release, suffering as art

Images of skulls, snakes and flames blanket his arms. A symmetrical red and black tribal-like tattoo covers his head, accenting his every facial feature. He’s sporting multiple pieces of Confederate paraphernalia, if you count the tattoo of the rebel flag on his temple.

Otto Long’s 55-year-old body testifies that all great art comes from suffering. But the Greensboro wood artist’s pain also led to a personal revival rooted in introspection and self-improvement.

“I didn’t start getting better until I got hurt,” Long said. In 1993, Long drove his Jeep off a cliff in a horrific accident that broke both his legs, one of which required amputation. When his wife left him shortly afterwards, he found himself at an all-time low. Long says the lengthy recovery period from the accident gave him time to think about the problems in his life and how to better himself. He also began carving wood to stay occupied.

“It kept me from going crazy,” Long said. “I was hurting and it was the only thing I could think of to do.”

Part of an Army family, Long was born in Augsburg, Germany but has lived in Greensboro for almost all of the rest of his life. He enlisted in the Army himself in 1974, although never deployed during his three-year service. For Otto Long, 1974 is more notably the year in which he got his first tattoo.

Nearly 40 years later, almost every inch of Long body is covered in art.

“Now, people offer to tattoo me for free, just to get their name on me,” Long said. “If getting tattoos was a sport, I’d be about retired.”

A friend tattooed Long’s face in 1996, a process so intricate that it was separated into two sessions. It’s an extremely arresting feature that has been a barricade of sorts between himself and the public.

“People stopped talking to me,” Long said. “They don’t want to associate with you if you break society’s rules.”

Long’s facial ink initially shocked his family and subsequently made him the subject of constant profiling.

He could’ve easily become resentful to people as a result of this, but instead he began compensating for his new intimidating look.

“It caused me to improve the way I treated people,” Long said.

One doesn’t need an ingrained familiarity with Long to believe that he succeeded in this regard.

Otto may be rugged, but he’s a man full of empathy and compassion. His modesty outweighs his pride when he discusses his carvings. He puts a positive spin on nearly everything he recounts, even his most painful experiences. He’s resiliently overcome battles with depression and alcoholism.

Most admirably, he is unwaveringly appreciative to those who’ve helped him in the past.

Long’s wave of self-improvement is largely a product of his friendship with “Little” John Bury, founder of Carolina Tattoo and eventually, Little John’s Tattoo, located on the corner of Aycock and Lee. He describes Bury as a man who lived to help people.

“There was always someone sleeping on John’s couch that he was helping get through hard times,” Long said.

Long himself moved in with Bury at the height of his alcoholism. Little John helped him get sober and he hasn’t had a drink in the 15 years since. Long continually credits Bury with helping him further understand the human condition and turning him into a positive thinker.

“Little John taught me that everyone deserves to be happy today,” Long said.

As he does with many subjects, Otto traces the meaning of his tattoos back to Bury.

“John used to say that I got tattoos to get rid of my demons, and I kind of feel that way,” Long said.

Otto worked full time in the tattoo studio making appointments and selling his carvings until Little John’s untimely death in 2008. Heartbroken by Bury’s passing and the deaths of other tattoo friends around the same time, Long stopped carving wood. However, his friends convinced him to eventually resume carving, which once again served as an outlet for expressing himself though his pain.

Long carves a variety of items including canes, totem poles and benches. The carvings often incorporate skulls or skeletons, which symbolize both mortality and Long’s journey of suffering. They’re carefully crafted pieces, cathartic representations of the human condition. Carving has provided Long with an emotional release and a source of income, but the simple praise of his work brings him the most joy. Some of his pieces have been featured in the Weatherspoon Art Museum, where he hopes to have his own outsider-art exhibit one day. More than a dozen of his carvings are currently on display at Little John’s Tattoo, which he still frequents on a weekly basis.

Otto has hardly any space for additional tattoos, but he still feels very much connected to the tattoo community. He remains close to several local artists and attends annual conventions, including the North Carolina Tattoo Convention, which Bury founded in Greensboro almost 20 years ago. It’s rare that Long talks about his past without briefly reminiscing about former local tattoo artists, many of whom sound like movie characters — Snake, Tick-Tock, Chicken Rick. His involvement with the community has been a vital aspect of his life.

“After I got tattoos, I interacted with so many more people,” Long said. “My tattoos probably extended my life.”