The racist tattoos that once covered Christian Picciolini’s body have been inked over, but around his forearm, he kept a band with Nordic runes, ancient symbols sometimes co-opted by racist and anti-Semitic groups.
“Sometimes, someone will come up to me and say, ‘Cool tattoo. I know what that is,’” the 42-year-old said. “That’s my entree into challenging their ideology.”
Picciolini is a co-founder of Life After Hate, a nonprofit with former extremists that works “to counter the seeds of hate we once planted.” The group helps people who have left extremist groups and people who want to leave them.
From the time he was 14 growing up in Chicago until he was 22, Picciolini was a member of a neo-Nazi skinhead group. He sang in a punk band that espoused white supremacy, and he participated in acts of violence against people he believed to be inferior.
If 14 seems far too young to be involved in a hate group, Picciolini says it’s the very age group that extremists target. “Recruiters will find these marginalized, vulnerable kids who are trying to develop an identity and teach them how to point the finger at others for problems they’re having in their lives,” Picciolini said.
As he became more deeply involved in the extremist group, Picciolini rose to be a leader, representing skinheads on television and leading rallies to help them spread their message. He opened a record store that sold racist music.
Meanwhile, his parents, immigrants who had experienced prejudice when they first came to America, tried in vain to understand how their son could be seduced by such ideas.
“I definitely thought I was much more in tune than they were and much smarter than they were — that they were being duped,” Picciolini said of his parents, “when in fact I was the one being duped.”
After Picciolini married and had children, he became disillusioned with extremism. It took him years to extricate himself. He lost his business, and received death threats from his former friends.
His wife left him because he didn’t disentangle himself sooner. He sank into depression and substance abuse.
It was while working a temp job at his former school that he spotted a security guard he’d assaulted years before and worked up the courage to approach him and apologize. The guard engaged him in conversation and extracted a promise. “He made me promise that I was going to tell my story to anyone who would listen,” he said.
That led to Picciolini’s involvement with Life After Hate in 2009. In 2015, Picciolini published Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead.
Picciolini travels to Slovakia, Norway and Sweden in September as a speaker for the U.S. Department of State, sharing the story of his escape from extremist ideology.
He’s still involved with music, but in a different way. He’s an Emmy Award–winning television and music-video producer. He’s turned his life around and has managed to rebuild the important relationships that were destroyed by his descent into extremism.
“I have a great relationship with my parents now,” he said. “If they hadn’t stood by me through all those hard times, I don’t know if I’d be here now.”