A Powerful Look At Veterans’ Tattoos–And The Stories Behind Them

When they return to civilian life, veterans often struggle to cope. Tattoos tell their stories.

Tattoos have become so mainstream over the past few decades that it’s impossible not to walk down the street without seeing at least a little ink on someone’s body. But credit for the tattooing trend really belongs to the military, which is thought to have introduced the art to the U.S. in the early 1900s.


Tattooing is still a popular form of self-expression for military veterans–one that civilians can now more easily relate to. War Ink, an online exhibit of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans’ stories and tattoos that launched in time for Veterans Day, aims to bridge the gap of isolation that many veterans experience when they return from deployment. Few people know what they went through, but tattoos can help tell their stories.

“In the military, tattooing is a secondary mode of expression. You turn to tattoos to express topics of loss, fear, anger,” says Jason Deitch, co-director of the project and a former combat medic. Many of the tattoos featured are related to the military experience, including combat and the culture of the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps.

To find the veterans featured in the project, who all live in California, Deitch and co-director Chris Brown went on what they call a “merciless statewide campaign,” looking for diversity in gender, race, branch of military service, and location. Libraries promoted the project in their local communities, while War Ink’s creators contacted every vet center in the state along with hundreds of tattoo shops. Storycorps conducted all the interviews.

Ron Riviera, Capitola, CA; U.S. Navy Corpsman & National Guard Medic, served 1990-2000Johann Wolf

Participants include people like Mike Ergo, a Marine Corp infantryman who served in Iraq and is now a social worker and readjustment counselor at the VA; Tracy Cooper-Harris, who served as a vet tech for operational combat dogs in Iraq and is pursuing her master’s degree in public administration; and Jose Cruz, a Mexico-born Marine Corp infantryman who served in Iraq and is now getting a graduate nursing science degree.

“Each of these veterans reflect the variety of experience,” says Brown, ‎the senior community library manager for Contra Costa county and the son of a Marine Corps officer. “The project shows how resilient they are.”

While War Ink is intended to give civilians a glimpse of the veteran experience, Deitch and Brown believe it will be important for veterans as well. “This is an important story to really model for the rest of our communities, that we need to be witness to these narratives,” says Deitch. “As we went through the project, we were incredibly surprised about the amount of meaning it had to the veterans. It’s a palpable, emotional feeling.”


Check out some of the photos from the exhibit in the slide show above; a more interactive experience is available on the exhibit website.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.