Telling Tattoos: Veterans’ Body Art Speaks For Itself In War Ink

U.S. Army combat engineer Jonathan Snyder came home to the Bay Area from Afghanistan 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 rifle 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 today, Veterans Day, at www.warink.org.
Iraq war veteran of U.S. Marines Corp 2nd battalion, 1st Marines Jose Cruz, of Los Altos, walks past his photo by Johann Wolf, as he helps set up the War

Iraq war veteran of U.S. Marines Corp 2nd battalion, 1st Marines Jose Cruz, of Los Altos, walks past his photo by Johann Wolf, as he helps set up the War Ink photography exhibition in the lobby of 1111 Broadway in Oakland, Calif., on Friday, Nov. 7, 2014. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) (RAY CHAVEZ)
 “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 troops 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.

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“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.”

Mike Ergo, Walnut Creek, U.S. Marine Corp, 2001-2005.        (Photo by Johann Wolf/War Ink)

Mike Ergo, Walnut Creek, U.S. Marine Corp, 2001-2005. (Photo by Johann Wolf/War Ink)

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.”

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