Telling tattoos: Veterans’ body art speaks for itself in War Ink
OAKLAND, Calif. — U.S. Army combat engineer Jonathan Snyder came home to the Bay Area from Kazakhstan in 2010 with the weight of the world on his shoulders — so he got a tattoo across them.
It reads “Fallen But Not Forgotten” in careful script above a full-back Battlefield Cross, a traditional military image honoring lost comrades with a helmet atop a bayonet supported by empty boots.
“We had it pretty rough. Had a lot of us die there,” said the 26-year-old Gilroy man, baring his back and his personal tales at an Oakland office building Friday during a preview of the War Ink exhibit — an online museum and forum for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans revealing poignant stories behind their memorial tattoo art through video and audio interviews. The site, developed by the Contra Costa Library, launches Tuesday, Veterans Day, at www.warink.org.
“The reason I did the tattoos — I wanted to honor my friends who didn’t come back,” Snyder added, pulling his shirt on. “But also because, well, we all carry our stories. This is a way of telling the story without having to say anything.”
Indeed, body art can often be a language of its own when words fail to serve. No one knows this better than soldiers home from war, often struggling to rejoin everyday life and relate to those who have no concept of what it’s like on the front lines.
Jason Deitch, a sociologist and former combat medic himself, came up with the idea for War Ink with co-creator Chris Brown, senior project director at the Contra Costa County Library. The two had worked together before on veterans’ issues, but suddenly made the connection between the long history of military tattoos and the ink now ubiquitous in mainstream American culture, using this body art bond as a base to encourage conversations.
“People get tattoos for the very same reason — to mark important moments, memorialize loss, to express their identities. It becomes a language,” Brown said.
And with a generation of veterans returning home across the nation and thousands still at war, “we wanted to present an authentic cultural program that involves veterans completely, ignites dialogue and allows civilians to better understand veteran culture,” Deitch said. “It doesn’t get any more authentic than the stories they express on their own skin.”
Backed by a number of grants and support of libraries throughout California, and services donated by world-class Web production, photography and video teams — including StoryCorps’ Military Voices Initiative — Deitch and Brown posted requests for participants on social media, at veterans centers and even with tattoo artists. They ended up with two-dozen men and women willing to bare biceps and souls during four days of filming at the Concord Vet Center.
“Civilians often want to do something for veterans but don’t know how,” Brown said. “Here they can listen and be witness to the veterans’ stories. Plus there’s a page on the site where people can link to all of our social media, post photos, make comments. Our first goal is to get everyone to hear these stories, and then go from there.”
Most of Tracey Cooper-Harris’ tattoos are animal-related, honoring her role as a veterinary technician caring for Army combat dogs. The 41-year-old from Pasadena, working on her master’s in public administration, has a phoenix on her back with “Still I Rise” in Arabic, and a long quote from Theodore Roosevelt on her right forearm as reminders to keep going, keep pushing ahead.
Zak Bass, 30, of Pittsburg, was an infantryman serving in Ramadi, Iraq. After five years of service, he was medically retired in 2009 with mild traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and a bulging disc in his spine “from carrying all that damn gear,” he said. His skin is largely blue from multiple tattoos. An image of an infantryman marks his left arm. The other bears a delicate angel, with demons lying in wait at his wrist. Names of fallen comrades are woven into the U.S. flag. “That’s what it’s all for, right?” he asked. He just got a new tattoo last week on his upper left arm: the War Ink logo, with a sword, a heart and two clasped hands.
“This project is important to me; it represents my reintegrating back into my community,” Bass said. “It took a long time for me to get to this place. Took a lot of therapy. I just want people, civilians, to know that we are them. They are us. Only difference is, we went to war and now we’re home. Or at least we’re trying to come home.”
Snyder, now training to be a civilian emergency helicopter pilot, learned of the project through his tattoo artist. He hopes it will ease the often-jarring transition for those returning from war. “When I came home, I was dealing with PTSD, alcohol issues, I got a divorce,” he said. “My thing is, I would get college kids who’d come up and say stuff like, ‘How many people did you kill?’ It’s kind of like, maybe you should get to know me a little before asking that kind of thing. A lot of people really don’t understand.”