Fetterman’s Tattoos Under Scrutiny in Pennsylvania Senate Race

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Quick Take

John Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor who is running for the U.S. Senate, has tattoos on his arms, some of which memorialize victims of violence. But conservative pundits — including Newt Gingrich — claim, without proof, that his tattoos suggest drug use and ties to a violent street gang.


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John Fetterman — the former mayor of a western Pennsylvania Rust Belt town called Braddock who later became lieutenant governor and is now running for the U.S. Senate — has tattoos.

He’s been asked about them and commented on some of them repeatedly over the years.

But two prominent conservative commentators — Fox News’ Tucker Carlson and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich — recently drew attention to the tattoos, sparking claims on social media that go so far as to say they are “satanic.”

There’s no evidence to support the claims about Fetterman’s tattoos. We’ll explain how this all developed, though.

In a roughly 18-minute segment about Fetterman on his Sept. 7 show, Carlson discussed Fetterman’s general appearance, finishing with, “all your stupid little fake tattoos — it’s a costume.”

Democratic Pennsylvania Senate nominee John Fetterman holds a rally on Sept. 11, 2022, in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images.

Fetterman responded in an opinion piece published by NBC News on Sept. 25 explaining, as he has many times before, that the tattoos on his right arm list the dates on which people died violently in Braddock while he was mayor. The tattoo on his left arm displays the Braddock zip code.

The same day that piece was posted, Gingrich tweeted about Fetterman’s third tattoo, which he has since inked over.

“Why would Pennsylvania democratic senate candidate john fetterman have a tattoo saying ‘ i will make you hurt’?” Gingrich wrote.

The next day, Gingrich posted this to his Twitter account: “Is Pennsylvania Democrat Fetterman’s tattoo ‘I will make you hurt’ based on his ties to the crips gang as reported by the Free Beacon or a reference to the nine inch nails heroin song ‘Hurt’. Fetterman won’t answer questions.”

The following day, the Gateway Pundit, a popular conservative website, proclaimed in a headline: “SATANIC: Democrat John Fetterman Has Tattoo ‘I Will Make You Hurt’ on His Right Arm that He Now Hides – Taken from Song on Suicide.”

That article borrowed the word “satanic” from an unrelated claim far-right political strategist Steve Bannon had made about Fetterman’s positions on prison reform — an issue we’ve written about before.

The claim from Gateway Pundit’s headline was then copied on other conservative websites.

What We Know About ‘I Will Make You Hurt’

Most of the claims focus on Fetterman’s now-blotted-out tattoo.

We asked Fetterman’s campaign for more information about it — including when and why he chose to get it and why he chose to black it out later.

The campaign didn’t answer our questions, but instead offered this statement: “This attack from Republicans is totally false – all of John’s tattoos have to do with his commitment to Braddock, including that one. This is yet another example of national Republican politicians making John their #1 target, which is why they are desperately spreading disinformation and made-up lies about him.”

So, without any further information from Fetterman, this is what we’ve been able to find:

In a picture posted on a website that Fetterman set up to promote Braddock shortly after becoming mayor in 2006, his right forearm appears to not yet have the tattoo.

The following year, a tattoo reading “I will make you hurt” is visible in a photo of Fetterman that ran with an Associated Press article, which explained that the phrase came from the Nine Inch Nails song titled, “Hurt.”

On the inside of the same forearm, Fetterman has the list of those who died in violent incidents in Braddock during his tenure. He began that memorial shortly after the slaying of Christopher Williams, 36, who was shot while delivering a pizza on Jan. 16, 2006 — days after Fetterman was sworn in.

“It was a senseless crime that affected me deeply,” Fetterman told local news outlet Trib Live in 2008. “Here was a guy that was my age, had a family and was just trying to do his job.”

That incident gave Fetterman the idea to commemorate Williams with a tattoo, which started the list of dates.

“I think a lot of tattoos are superfluous,” he said in 2008. “If you are going to get one, I think it should have meaning. Mr. Williams’ death had great meaning to me.”

Fetterman, who was mayor of Braddock for 13 years, didn’t say anything in that interview about the lyrical tattoo, though.

As is true of art generally, the meaning of “Hurt” is subjective. But it has commonly been interpreted as a song about suicide or depression.

The first verse of the song, released in 1994, says:

I hurt myself today
To see if I still feel
I focus on my pain
The only thing that’s real
The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting
Try to kill it all away
But I remember everything

So, that could be interpreted as a reference to heroin, which is how Gingrich has apparently understood it. The song doesn’t explicitly say anything about heroin — or any other drug, for that matter — but it is relevant that Nine Inch Nails founder Trent Reznor, who wrote the song, had used heroin in the 1990s.

Reznor has consistently said in interviews, however, that he wrote the song when he was having an identity crisis while he experienced early fame and has called it “a sort of valentine to the sufferer.”

Although Reznor wrote it, “Hurt” is most often associated with Johnny Cash, who recorded a cover in 2002.

Fetterman hasn’t explained why he chose to tattoo that lyric on his arm, or why he covered it over. But it’s a stretch to suggest that the tattoo is an endorsement of heroin.

Reference to a Street Gang

As for the claim that the “Hurt” phrase may indicate that Fetterman has “ties to the crips gang,” that’s even more far-fetched.

Gingrich’s tweet referred to a story published in the conservative Washington Free Beacon, which posted this headline on Sept. 26: “Fetterman Gave Nod to Crips Street Gang During Mayoral Campaign.”

There’s no reference to Fetterman’s tattoos in the story, though. Rather, it rehashes an issue from Fetterman’s original campaign for mayor in Braddock, a borough that has struggled since the U.S. steel industry collapsed.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote about the situation in 2006, explaining:

The way John Fetterman sees it, there are two Braddocks.

Mr. Fetterman, the borough mayor, said those two Braddocks are illustrated by two different spellings.

There is B-R-A-D-D-O-C-K, which the mayor describes as formerly prosperous. That Braddock, which he calls the “O-C-K,” is embodied by the older residents, those who remember Braddock’s heyday, when the town’s Braddock Avenue was loaded with shops and shoppers. They are the same residents he now describes as hiding behind locked doors, afraid of the younger people who have nothing to do but hang out on the street corners.

It’s those younger people who belong to the other Braddock, the one Mr. Fetterman refers to as “B-R-A-D-D-O-C-C”, or the “O-C-C.” That is the underground spelling for the borough, which, he said, acknowledges an allegiance that many of the younger residents there have with the Crips gang.

The article then notes that Fetterman had been working with “disaffected young men in Braddock” as part of his social services work before he became mayor.

Braddock is located just outside of the Pittsburgh city line and, as noted in a 2011 publication from the U.S. Justice Department’s National Gang Center, the Crip and Blood gangs started to take hold in Pittsburgh in 1991. So, there is a presence from the gang in the area.

The Free Beacon also quoted Joe Cavello, Fetterman’s spokesman, as saying, “The notion that John Fetterman has any affinity for the crips is complete and utter bullshit. Under John, crips in Braddock were taken off the street and put in jail.”

We reached out to Gingrich’s consulting firm, Gingrich 360, to make sure that’s the article he was referencing, but we didn’t hear back.

Gingrich suggested Fetterman’s tattoo is “based on his ties to the crips gang,” but Fetterman has no ties to the street gang that we could find other than being the top elected official of a borough that has struggled with a gang problem.

And the notion that the tattoo is “satanic,” as the Gateway Pundit claimed, could be chalked up to opinion — but it’s an opinion that’s based on no evidence at all.

Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on social media. Our previous stories can be found here. Facebook has no control over our editorial content.

Sources

The Colbert Report. Mayor John Fetterman details how he’d like to improve Braddock, PA. CC.com. 25 Feb 2009.

Fetterman, John. “The truth about my tattoos… Here’s why I wear Braddock on my sleeve.” Medium. 16 Mar 2021.

Fox News. Tucker Carlson: This is shocking. YouTube. 7 Sep 2022.

Fetterman, John. “Tucker Carlson wants to talk about my tattoos. So let’s talk about them.” NBC. 25 Sep 2022.

Gingrich, Newt (@newtgingrich). “Why would Pennsylvania democratic senate candidate john fetterman have a tattoo saying ‘ i will make you hurt’?” Twitter. 25 Sep 2022.

Gingrich, Newt (@newtgingrich). “Is Pennsylvania Democrat Fetterman’s tattoo ‘I will make you hurt’ based on his ties to the crips gang as reported by the Free Beacon or a reference to the nine inch nails heroin song ‘Hurt’. Fetterman won’t answer questions.” Twitter. 26 Sep 2022.

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Nine Inch Nails. “Nine Inch Nails: Hurt (live) (1995).” YouTube. 16 Mar 2009.

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Still Watching Netflix. “How Nine Inch Nails Wrote ‘Hurt’ | Song Exploder.” YouTube. 12 Jan 2021.

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Howlett, Alex. “Hurt — Trent Reznor’s ‘valentine to the sufferer’ was deepened by Johnny Cash.” Financial Times. 29 Jul 2019.

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Howell, James C., et al. “U.S. Gang Problem Trends and Seriousness, 1996–2009.” U.S. Justice Department, National Gang Center. May 2011.



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