Tattoo Portraits: remembering Dimebag Darrell

Celebrated as one of the most important axemen of the 90s, the Dime portrait is a very frequent subject among tattoo lovers. This is the tragic story of his last night

It’s freezing cold in the parking lot outside Alrosa Villa a little club in Columbus, Ohio. The calendar reads December 8th 2004 and everyone’s waiting for the concert of Damageplan, the new band formed by the Abbott brothers (Darrell and Vinnie Paul) after they shelved Pantera, the most celebrated metal band of the ’90s. The Abbott brothers didn’t lose heart for this sad situation, found themselves a new singer (Patrick Lachman, who had been vocalist in Rob Halford’s band) and got down to recording ‘New Found Power’, the first and only album from Damageplan.

Chris Jones, Physical Graffiti, Cardiff, UK
Chris Jones, Physical Graffiti, Cardiff, UK

Phil Anselmo, the Pantera former frontman, didn’t take it well. And in October 2004 would make a statement in an interview in the English edition of Metal Hammer which he would regret to the end of his days. The British journalist asked him about the involuntary hiatus of Pantera and Phil didn’t mince his words. «I think Dimebag deserves to be beaten severely for breaking up the group; it’s all his fault we’ve fallen apart». Vinnie Paul read it and threw the magazine against the wall. They would never speak again.

Let’s coming back to the club. A troublemaker and pretty weird-looking guy with a shaved head is hanging around outside the Alrosa. His name is Nathan Gale. A discharged marine wearing a sweatshirt with the logo of the hockey team the Columbus Blue Jackets. The hood pulled up over his shiny pate. Gale had been hanging around since the early afternoon and this had roused the suspicions of club owner, Rick Cautela. «He hadn’t got a ticket, but all he wanted to do was to talk with Darrell. Since he was bothering us we asked him to leave».

But Gale hadn’t gone away and tragedy was just around the corner. No sooner had Damageplan started to play than he sprang into action: he jumped over a railing and got into the venue through an emergency exit. It only took a moment to get around the crowd (the place was packed, but it could fit up to 600 spectators) and he reappeared on the left side of the stage. He got up on stage without any trouble or anybody trying to stop him. The public weren’t all that worried. It just looked like the typical metal fan jumping up on stage to do a stage dive. About ninety seconds into the show, and by a twist of irony, Damageplan were playing ‘Breathing a new life’.

Bill Payne, the singer of Volume Dealer (a local group who were first on stage) will never be able to get the scene out of his head: «That kid was determined. He was real angry. He looked like he was going into battle, not to have some fun. I knew right away there was something wrong». Gale was only paces away from Dimebag, took a Beretta 9 mm out of his pocket and opened fire. One of the security guards, didn’t realise what was going on and just took it for a hoax. «It looked like some sort of a stage gag. The bartender went on serving drinks. The crowd were pumping their fists in the air, total crazy shit. There was an incredible atmosphere and we thought the gunshots were just firecrackers or the speakers popping with the high volume». But it was no joke.

It was the Apocalypse. Darrell had been hit in the head and fell lifeless to the ground. And three other people (Nathan Bray, 23, Jeff “Mayhem” Thompson, 40 and Erin A. Halk, 29) would die before Gale was halted in his killing spree. Chaos breaks out all around: Vinnie Paul, protected by his drum kit is uninjured. All the others flee in panic and Gale is left alone on the stage with one of the Damageplan roadies as a hostage. He points his gun at his neck and threatens to kill him if they don’t let him go. And someone has finally called 911.

Finally police officer James Niggemeyer appears on the scene. Steals up behind the killer and aims at his head from at close range. James keeps his cool. One shot is all it takes to save the life of the hostage: for many, Niggemeyer is a hero, but he’s a peaceful guy who prefers writing traffic fines to shooting civilians. He will never quite get over it and a few year later leaves the force. Meanwhile, before the arrival of the ambulance, Dimebag Darrell’s heart stops beating. He is just 38 years old and dies the same day that John Lennon was killed by another madman 24 years earlier.

Matt Jordan, Ship Shape Tattoo, Orewa, New-Zealand
Matt Jordan, Ship Shape Tattoo, Orewa, New-Zealand

We’ll never really know what Gale’s true motive was. After his experience in the Marines, he seemed quiet enough. Worked on construction sites, had a regular life, and his mother described him as a peaceful kind of guy. «In November, he got his driving licence suspended and he started coming out with all this crazy shit: he would talk to himself and laugh for no reason. He started saying that Pantera had stolen his songs and that it was all Dimebag ‘s fault that they broke up». Pure insanity.

Lucas Bender, a local tattoo artist and proprietor of ‘Bearsden Tattoo’ in Marysville where Gale lived with his mother, added: «He came to us and got a big Tribal piece on his arm. Then he kept coming around every day when the piece was finished, bothering our customers. He made a big impression on me. Then I realised why he was always coming round. One of my tattooists plays guitar in his free time and Nathan had started to get obsessed with him. He was utterly obsessed and infatuated with guitar players in general».

Hokowhitu Sciascia, The-Black Mark, Melbourne Australia
Hokowhitu Sciascia, The-Black Mark, Melbourne Australia

Meanwhile the last one to leave the club was Bill Payne from Volume Dealer. Tears in his eyes and hands shaking. He would later tell a journalist: «Damageplan were really good to us guys, the unknown local bands in Columbus, they treated us with great respect: Vinnie and Dime had invited us back for drinks after the show. For smalltown kids like us it was the classic dream come true. Meeting the founders of Pantera and getting to play with them». A dream that turned into a total nightmare.