Alum Brings Healing with #ButteStrong Design
It’s November 12, and Zac Acker is alone inside 12 Volt Tattoo, the shop he’s owned and operated for six and a half years. It’s been four days since the Camp Fire erupted fewer than 15 miles from the shop that sits in the edge of downtown Chico, and the city is quiet, dark, and cold, smoke choking out the sun.
Acker (Attended, 1997–98) is a little bored but also plagued by uncertainty about what life will be like after the Camp Fire is extinguished, whenever that is. What will come of the dozens of friends and hundreds of clients who called Paradise and the surrounding communities home? Will people still want tattoos? Will he have to retire his tattoo machine and close the store?
To pass the time, Acker opens up illustration software on his iPad Pro. He starts with an outline of California. He adds a heart over Paradise. And a lone pine tree. Fewer than three minutes after he started sketching, he texts it to his wife, Karen (Public Relations, ‘01), who had evacuated to Palo Cedro with their children.
“What is that?” asks Karen, a program coordinator for the University’s First-Year Experience program. “Is that a tattoo?”
“Just a drawing,” he answers.
“Did you post it?” she asks, anticipating how the 12 Volt social media audience would respond.
“You should,” she says. “It’s perfect.”
In agreement about its simplicity, subtlety, and symbolism, Zac posted the #ButteStrong design on the shop’s Facebook page. Almost instantly, the shop’s phone rang. And it didn’t stop.
“They asked for tattoos and shirts with the design,” he said. “[They asked] ‘Is this a sticker? How do we get it?’”
Within hours, the post was shared hundreds of times, and it became clear the design was a remembrance for what Paradise residents had lost in the most destructive wildfire in state history—as well as what it still had. Seven hours after its original post, the shop announced it would provide tattoos of the #ButteStrong design, charging only half the normal cost and doing some for free. All proceeds would go to Camp Fire relief.
The next day, the shop was overwhelmed with the number of customers, some waiting for up to four or five hours. As people waited, or even as they were getting tattooed, many began to open up about their experiences escaping the fire, what they’d lost, and their uncertain future. It felt like the beginning of the healing.
“It was one person after another and their stories, and in a lot of cases it was the first time telling their stories as they were getting their tattoo,” Karen said. “And that’s what it was—they wanted to memorialize their experience with a tattoo. It became a symbol.”
The shop was packed every hour for a week, and after employing the help of a friend and tattoo artist from Bakersfield, the shop inked 80 to 100 tattoos a day of the #ButteStrong design. Some people got the original sketch, while others added Roman numerals for the date or the historic Honey Run Covered Bridge, which also perished in the fire. Still others, like Lyndsay Distefano, simply wanted the pine tree with a heart.
Distefano grew up in Paradise and moved to Chico two years ago. The Camp Fire consumed the homes of friends, her cousins, and grandparents. Her childhood home was among the nearly 14,000 residential structures lost in the blaze. And like nearly 600 others, she chose to commemorate the historic event with a version of the #ButteStrong design.
“Paradise is a special place and I have lots of memories there,” Distefano said. “It’s been really hard losing the home I grew up in.”
More and more people asked 12 Volt to add stickers and hoodies to its #ButteStrong merchandise—and Zac and Karen took heed. Local printer Dragon Graphics printed stickers and hoodies for free, and 12 Volt distributed the proceeds (more than $5,000) to Camp Fire relief through the North Valley Community Foundation and Golden Valley Bank.
Collecting money from the cash-only stickers in an envelope, 12 Volt purchased more than $1,000 in $50 gift cards for gas or supermarkets, then handed them out to customers at their discretion.
“I’ve never seen these guys show so much emotion,” Karen said, “but at night that first week or so, all of these guys were teary-eyed with the stories they heard, to the point that they just didn’t know how to respond to people.”
Merchandising the #ButteStrong logo began taking on a life of its own. Suddenly an ad hoc retail store, 12 Volt continued selling the hoodies, with boxes of merchandise stacked up everywhere it had free space. Made in Chico and Anika Burke are selling its #ButteStrong hoodies and restocking a sold-out supply nearly every day.
Klean Kanteen approached 12 Volt to print a run of stainless steel, vacuum-insulated bottles with the #ButteStrong design. After the first run of 1,000 bottles sold out online in 22 minutes, Klean Kanteen did another run of 5,000 bottles, which also quickly sold out, and 100 percent of the profit—$150,000 in total—went to the United Way Camp Fire Fund. An exclusive Klean Kanteen stainless steel pint cup will be sold at a three-day Camp Fire benefit concerts this week at the El Rey to raise additional funds.
Beyond that, a local artist offered to make Christmas ornaments at no charge to sell as a fundraiser. And there have been discussions with cycling group Chico Velo to create riding jerseys using the #ButteStrong design as a fire relief fundraiser.
To date, Karen estimates that fundraising using the #ButteStrong design has topped $200,000, a number she says is difficult for her to comprehend, as is how her husband’s sketch become a widespread icon for hope and healing.
“People were saying, ‘I need this now, I want this, this is all I want,’” she said. “I’m thinking, ‘You don’t have a house, you don’t have a job.’ A lot of them don’t have a car. Their pets were missing. All of these horrible things. But [the #ButteStrong tattoo] is what they wanted to focus on.”