“War Ink” Uses Tattoos to Break Down Barrier Between Veterans and Civilians

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For veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, surviving the war was only half the battle. For many veterans, returning home to the U.S. after experiencing the horrors of war comes with its own share of challenges.

From dealing with haunting memories to trying to re-assimilate to life in the U.S., war veterans face a number of obstacles that most of the civilian population can’t relate to. A new collaborative project launched by the San Francisco Bay Area’s Costa County Library attempts to bridge the gap between veterans and civilians through a series of videos, photos and interviews.

In a new online exhibit entitled “War Ink,” 24 veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were given the opportunity to share their stories and experiences with the civilian community through their war tattoos. Often times, war veterans feel isolated upon returning home, and the creator of the project, U.S. Army veteran and military sociologist James Deitch, wanted to give them an outlet to express the thoughts and feelings the war left them with.

“These tattoos are an expression from a community that doesn’t openly discuss or express emotion,” Deitch told PBS. “We understood these tattoos to be uniquely valuable, as veterans largely return home to a community that doesn’t know their story and how war changed them.”

By photographing veterans’ tattoos, Deitch hoped to break down the barrier between the military and civilian world and to create an open dialogue between the two. Tattoos often tell a story, and for military personnel, tattoos document their experiences from war and often hold deep personal meaning.

“I think it’s great that people choose to commemorate important points in their lives which can often be sad or difficult to convey to others. It can often be very difficult for a soldier to express their feelings about what they experienced, and I can see why they would want their tattoos be photographed rather than retelling a tale.  This is a nice way to honor veterans,” says Christina Seeber, Marketing Manager at the Academy of Responsible Tattooing.

The exhibit includes four chapters: “We Were You,” “Changed Forever,” “Living Scars” and “Living not Surviving.” The chapters consist of audio clips, video interviews and photographs of 24 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as they share the meaning behind their war tattoos, giving civilians a glimpse into the life of war veteran.

“War Ink” opened online on Veterans Day and can be viewed at www.warink.org.

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