Like most highly symbolic art, it’s all about the backstory. “Service Ink,” now up at White River Valley Museum, tells the stories of 40 active members of the military, veterans or family through the symbols they wear permanently on their bodies: their tattoos.
The stories told by those responding to the museum’s call for submissions range from fierce to philosophical, from triumphant to deeply grieving, all told through ink and symbols that might be more highly planned than many civilian tattoos. Around the exhibit, the museum has created a nontraditional space for sitting, talking and thinking about what it means to serve and wear that service forever on your skin.
“The whole idea was to give people a voice about their military experiences, and give the rest of us a look into their lives, which are so different,” explains museum director Patricia Cosgrove, who had the idea for the show. “And to use the art of tattoo as a device for that storytelling.”
It works. Packed into the small temporary gallery are 40 tattoos and their backstories, given unity by the striking black-backgrounded portraits for most wearers (a few couldn’t be present, so submitted photos are used), a brief biography with dates and places of service and a stencil font for each name. Every person there has connections to Washington state; most are from the South Sound.
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The most beautiful tattoo is the most anonymous. Standing separately on a shelf, a man’s back and chest are covered with an intertwined koi fish and dragon, the black shading as subtle as a sumi painting, the gold highlights merging with his creamy skin. His face and name aren’t given, though he’s described as a sergeant first class who served with the Green Berets and got one of his tattoos in Thailand. But the philosophy is equal to the stunning artwork — the story of a koi who, approaching a waterfall with dragons at the top, swims up the waterfall to ask them how to become a dragon, and by swimming, himself becomes one. On the man’s chest, the koi and dragon heads look quizzically at one another; on his back their bodies merge in a scaly, swishing whole.
Some of the tattoos honor a loved one killed in service. Michael Washington, a former 23-year Marine whose son of the same name was killed in action in Iraq, has a memorial covering his burly upper arm: his son smiling, then crouched over a gun in battle, and “The last full measure of devotion” written alongside. Stephanie Groepper has a Gothic candle tree with three candles to represent herself, her husband Cpl. Chad Groepper killed in Iraq, and their daughter, along with “True love never dies.” She got the tattoo just two days after he died.
There are other wives, and one father-in-law, their tattoos telling in words and images the peace and constant memory brought by the art on their skin.
Around the rest of the room, there are plenty of the usual tattoo symbols: flags, guns, crosses, eagles, anchors.
But a surprising number are far more creative. Erik Hass, a master sergeant, has a cartoon tiger to memorialize the “Young Tiger” task force from the Vietnam War. Daniel Even, a sergeant, has an entire landscape ascending up his back like a Chinese painting, complete with forests, animals, a Native-style fish at the base of a blue waterfall, symbolizing the peace he has found outdoors. Several veteran submariners have the insignia of the two facing dolphins. Joe Dillon, now an ensign with the Coast Guard, has a simple black sheep — fierce, with sharp teeth and jagged brows — on his calf as a reminder of the independence of his unit in Iraq.
For many, the symbols are a diary of their lives in service. There are icons of places served (shamrocks, pizzas, European town crests, tropical leaves) and a crossed ribbon, legible from Petty Officer Charinda Stoll’s sightline, that reads “Survivor” backward — her affirmation that the sexual harassment and two rapes she suffered while in service are now in her past. Another affirmation is on the arm of Lisa Grillo, kicked out of the Air Force in 1985 for being gay. A combined U.S.-Gay Pride flag with the Air Force chevron, along with a microphone (she broadcast on radio), shows her eventual acceptance and pride of the service she once remembered with anger.
Perhaps most metaphysical of all are the tattoos and words of Cpl. Michel DeWitz, who’s covered his chest and back, and even face, with Maori-style ink. As he reminds us, warriors all through the ages decorated their bodies with this “spiritual suit of armor” which told of their rank, clan and triumphs, and worked to distract enemies visually as they gave “a killing blow.”
Unlike most art exhibits, this one has a sofa and coffee table in the middle, along with free coffee and tea, and discussion “question cards” to encourage visitors to sit for a while with these stories, thinking about the experiences told through body art, and the commitment that implies.