|Ray Johnson and “Pixie” at a convention.|
The people of Campo begged. They went to the home of their mayor, 46-year-old Ray Johnson, and pleaded with him — told him point blank, “You can’t quit. You’ve gotta keep going.” They distributed petitions and collected signatures, but Johnson was apprehensive. He’d beaten the incumbent mayor, Syd Kraier, a few years earlier, on the familiar political promise of bringing positive change to the community in the form of concerts and other activities. And, according to Johnson, progress was being made, but he still felt like he’d been doing his town a disservice, that he hadn’t been around enough.
Why? Because he’d been getting tattooed too much.
Campo, Colorado, is a town of about 400 people, divided down its center by U.S. Route 287. There are fewer than five businesses (including a small gas station, a bed-and-breakfast and a cafe), the nearest Walmart is 72 miles away and the closest major city is Amarillo, Texas, 140 miles south. But during his first tenure as mayor, Johnson was making the five-hour northbound trek to Colorado Springs to visit Maria at Glory Badges Tattoo, often missing up to three days of work a week in the process. “I wasn’t doing it justice here,” he admits.
|Campo, CO. [Image source: Google Maps.]|
In addition to a covered torso and fully inked thighs, Johnson’s also got a pair of hard-to-miss sleeves that may seem out of place on the mayor of a small and admittedly conservative town. He says, though, that he’s never been hassled by the townspeople — either they don’t know he’s heavily tattooed, or they do know and they don’t care enough to bother him about it. “I pretty much hide it,” he says. “Sometimes maybe not, if I’m with my buddies. Probably everybody knows, ‘cause I’ve heard some talk, but nobody really asks. I try to keep it hidden — I guess I’m a little conservative too.” But even when he is approached, the problems have been few. The principal of the town’s school caught a glimpse of his ink not long ago, and after a brief “Oh my gosh! I had no idea!” moment, laughed it off and went about his day. Things may move slowly in Campo, but apparently not slow enough for people to get worked up over a few tattoos.
It could also be, of course, that Johnson has been extremely effective as the town’s mayor. Campo, for the most part, is a farming and ranching town, surrounded by fields on all sides, and Johnson, through some connections he’s made at a music school in Lubbock, Texas, is in the process of organizing Campo’s first music festival, slated for next summer. It may seem like a small gesture for a mayor to make, but Johnson’s role is less formal than one may expect, and instead functions more as the community leader. The hierarchy still exists, but it’s less relevant than it may be other places.
In a town of 400, though, municipal jobs have some overlap: Johnson, as mayor, is also the Chief of Police — a department comprising only two full time officers. Crime tends not to be too much of a problem in such a small community, so when Johnson’s cops are forced into action, it’s usually to deal with motorists passing through Route 287 — and even then, they’re often limited to writing speeding tickets for cars shooting down the highway. Trivial? Maybe. But those speeding tickets, as Johnson explains in his sweet, slow drawl, are how Campo generates most of its income.
Being mayor of Campo, as it turns out, isn’t necessarily a full-time gig, but Johnson keeps busy. He’s still a cattle farmer — as his parents were before he was — and sells off his calves each year. More than just cattle, however, Johnson’s also got his car dealer’s license, and runs a car lot selling used vehicles at cost to others in the town. “There’s nothing I hate worse than going to buy a car,” he says. “You always leave and feel like, ‘Man, I got screwed.’” So Johnson hits the local auctions in surrounding areas, buys up cars as cheaply as possible, and then sells them at no profit, for no other reason than to help out his constituents and neighbors. “You get taken advantage of so much” in situations like that, he says, so why not cut out the middle man if he’s able? Johnson’s voice lights up when asked what he personally drives: “A 2000-model Chevy pick-up that I got for 1,500 bucks. And it’s nice. Really nice,” he says, impressed and chuckling. And aside than the car lot, and the farm, and the mayoral office, and the police force? He’s also building a cafe with a street patio — by hand. Building the wrought iron, installing the flagstone — and hopefully bringing a few new jobs to the town. What he’s not doing, however, is acting as the head of the Democratic Party for Baca County, the surrounding area of Campo, although he has held that position in the past as well. Johnson calls Campo “conservative,” but says that shouldn’t imply that it’s full of Republicans. “People are just old-fashioned here,” he says. “Politics doesn’t have much to do with it.” As far as the current presidential election is concerned, Johnson’s non-committal: “Oh my goodness, I don’t know. I don’t care for either one of them,” he says, laughing, referring to John McCain and Barack Obama.
And in many ways, traditional politics don’t matter quite as much in a place like Campo. As the mayor — traditionally, an inescapably politically charged job — Johnson sees himself as the person to listen to and act on the concerns of the townspeople, rather than dictating certain rules and a way of life. That is to say, in many ways, Johnson is the mayor that many others claim (and fail) to be. And now, having gone about as far with his tattoo work as he feels necessary, he feels comfortable in his position again; apparently, so do the people of Campo, who have made him their mayor for the last eight years and, in doing so, have elected quite possibly the country’s most heavily tattooed civic leader. At a recent tattoo convention in Denver, Johnson actually placed second in the “Overall Male” category for his body suit. “Should’ve gotten first!” he says in mock anger and with a rare raising of his voice. He’s silent for a second afterward, and seems to feel like even that joke, that split-second of false bravado, is in need of correction.
“But,” he adds — humbly, gracefully, earnestly — “there were a lot of people there.”