War Paint: The Intimate Stories Behind Military Veterans' Tattoos

PW presents an exclusive excerpt from photographer Kyle Cassidy’s new book of photos and interviews, "War Paint: Tattoo Culture & the Armed Forces."

By Kyle Cassidy
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 8 | Posted Jun. 13, 2012

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Jon Wright didn’t want to go to Vietnam; he got drafted. He was only there for eight months in 1966 and ’67, but something he saw there still keeps him from sleeping at night. “I didn’t want those eight months to be my life,” he said, “but I’ve realized that those eight months are my life.” To help come to terms with that, he got two tattoos: one for his unit—the Fourth Battalion, Ninth Infantry—and one to remember the people who went to Vietnam but never left.

My understanding of the military got more complicated the more I worked on this book; the more vets I met and photographed; the more days I spent in airports, VFW halls and living rooms, listening to grandfathers, mothers, brothers, sisters. I heard stories of love and loss and success and failure; of profound attachment, overwhelming sadness, and a camaraderie seemingly unknowable by anyone who hadn’t gone through it.

I may be the last un-tattooed person of my generation. I’ve always felt that I’ve never done or experienced anything that I’d still want to remember the same way 40 years from now. That may have been different if I’d been in the military. As I saw my friends coming back from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Bosnia, memorializing events and people and experiences on their skin, I wanted to draw attention to what they’d been through—and I realized that someone should be writing these stories down.

Because if we, as a country, are going to send people to fight, I felt we owed them, at the very least, some time to listen to them when they come back.

Some stories are sad, some are happy, most are mixtures of the two. The first tattoo I photographed was on the arm of an 84-year-old man who’d parachuted into France on D-Day and who lost a leg at the Battle of the Bulge. He had a tattoo memorializing his brother who’d been killed fighting in Italy.

Sometimes tattoos are signposts, cross-generational invitations to conversation and friendship, symbols of ebullient pride. Sometimes they’re secret, coded messages that few will understand, and other times they’re completely private; no amount of scrutiny will reveal their meaning.

War Paint isn’t a book about the bravest warriors or the most beautiful tattoos, it’s a book about ordinary people put in extraordinary circumstances. Thanks for looking. —Kyle Cassidy

Jeremy Willett

Sergeant, Communications Chief, United States Marine Corps, 1997-2007 / OIF1 Feb. 2003–July 2003 with Communications Platoon, Headquarters and Service Company, 6th Engineer Support Battalion, 4th Marine Logistics Group / OIF2 Aug. 2004–Feb. 2005 with Bridge Company “A,” 6th ESB, Joint Task Force June 25, 1997–Nov. 10, 2007

Six months after boot camp I realized that I still wanted to get a tattoo—I wanted to give myself a mature buffer before I got it, since it was going to be my first tattoo—I started scouting and researching, going to tattoo shops, reading magazines, looking at various tattoos that other Marines had. I started to come up with an idea of what I wanted to have—it was frustrating at first because a lot of the tattoos I saw out there were very cartoon-like, and I didn’t want anything like that. Then I came across one at Captain Jack’s over on Hawthorne, in Portland, Oregon—it was the right detail and image, I had to modify it and customize it, getting it grey scale, getting rid of some extra ornamentation.

Then between my two deployments, I did my back piece—a large tribal phoenix—my friend Nate Hudson at Optic Nerve designed it—it was a difficult time frame for me—I felt very displaced coming back from my second tour—reality was so much better there—the sun came up, you woke up, you did your work for the day—it was very hard but you had an idea of what you needed to be doing, there wasn’t so much... clutter, there weren’t so many distractions—you did your work, the sun goes down, you go to sleep, and you get up the next day and do it all over again.

Coming back here, the lights, the sounds, were so much more intense. So many more factors that are bombarding you all of a sudden—I felt out of place and was dealing with some difficult times—one of the reasons I wanted to get a phoenix was because of its deep meaning—internationally, with many cultures—the idea of rebirth.... and I had some scarification done to go along with it—I like to look at people’s tattoos, but I really like when they have a story behind it.

William James Cryer

E4, United States Marine Corps, Sep. 16, 2001–April 16, 2010 / 2nd Recon Battalion

This one is an eagle with the stars and stripes on it, and it has the initials “USMC” for United States Marine Corps. I just got out of boot camp and I was enthusiastic about getting a military tattoo, I wanted to show it off and I thought everybody had the same tattoos so I wanted to think about something that would be original but would also be patriotic. I went to the parlor and was looking through their stuff and combined a flag with an eagle, it’s a flag with the stars and stripes in it. I wanted it to symbolize freedom and patriotism, but I wanted him to put “United States Marine Corps” at the bottom so that people would know that I was a Marine. It’s my favorite piece because it was my first piece, I’ve grown close to it. When people see it they usually say, “Oh, you served?” and shake my hand and say, “Thank you for what you’ve done.” It’s very gratifying that people appreciate what I’ve done and they see it through my artwork.

I got the tattoo on my chest on this side because I wanted it over my heart. It’s the Marine Corps and Semper Fi; Sempter Fidelis means “always faithful,” it’s the Marine Corps motto. I wanted to get this over my heart so that whenever I got down I could always look at it and remind myself that I’m a Marine and that I need to carry myself as a Marine and that I’m part of a brotherhood… I know that whenever I’m in front of a flag and I put my hand over my heart, I’m putting it over the Marine Corps emblem too.

This one on my neck I got because I wanted people to really see this one. I have a lot of people that will come up to me and say, “Semper Fi!” when they see it. At the bottom it says “Marine Recon” which is the job I did, I was Force Recon and I got that there because it’s the upper echelon of the Marine Corps and I’m so proud to have done it—it’s the greatest thing I could have done with my life. It’s like a shining beacon to me, a symbol of what I’ve done.

I got deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, I also spent six months of reconnaissance missions in Kosovo, back when Slobodan Milošević was doing the ethnic cleansing; I was part of the peacekeeping mission. Going from Boston to Kosovo was very different. The people were friendly, they were going through a lot of things, I was glad to be a part of that, to help those people, it was gratifying. That was a lot of urban terrain, too, in that way it was like Iraq, a lot of close encounters, it was basically going against another military, they were organized just like us, they were trained just like us, it was like two swords meeting each other. A lot of the job was building-to-building, doing sweeps in a five-man recon team, check the rooms for bombs, insurgents, you’re looking on the stairs, on the bannisters, for wires, sometimes there’s civilians— sometimes you can’t tell between friend or foe, and that’s the hardest thing. Sometimes the enemy would have a bomb strapped to a kid, or hide weapons on someone that’s innocent, and when you walk into a room, sometimes you can’t tell—it’s split-second reactions, you have to know if that person’s a threat.

Kosovo prepared me for Afghanistan and Iraq, I learned that wars aren’t won alone, that you can lean on the brother next to you, you work as a team to get the job accomplished. I’m a Marine and it’s the greatest thing I could have done with my life.

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Comments 1 - 8 of 8
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1. Kara D said... on Jun 13, 2012 at 01:30PM

“As the wife of a veteran, and the granddaughter of two veterans, and a tattoo artist, I am admittedly biased.
I think that this project is long overdue--but I am glad that Kyle Cassidy was the man to do it. He has an eye for capturing the essence of a person in a way that makes you see them as a whole person: strong and vulnerable, proud and modest, wounded and healed.
We need a book like this to tell the stories of those who have been to places most Americans would never go, and those who have experienced things that most Americans could never imagine.

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2. Tara Lessard said... on Jun 14, 2012 at 08:43AM

“As a freelance photographer in Philadelphia, I continue to be inspired by Kyle Cassidy's work and chosen direction. He illuminates the often forgotten crevices of humanity with sensitivity, depth and perception and brings forth previously unspoken truths educed from people who truly have a story to tell. Kudos to another job well done.”

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3. Chole L said... on Jun 14, 2012 at 11:53AM

“This is such an interesting topic. I am so glad someone is taking it on. I plan on buying the book as a gift for a veteran. Thank you”

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4. Joe Bartus said... on Jun 19, 2012 at 08:38AM

“As the son of an army veteran of Vietnam, I am very proud of all of our veterans. I have a grandfather that went up on Omaha beach first wave, and he was one of three to get off the beach alive out of 2000 men. He has a tattoo for D-Day. They do have many meanings, and like you said we should hear every story before they are lost. That's what makes us who we are as a nation. And if all the vets could talk about what they have seen it might be easier on all of them.
Thank You All!

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5. EB said... on Jul 7, 2012 at 12:17PM

“If any photographer but Kyle Cassidy had done this, I would be worried that it was some kind of propaganda piece... but after seeing Kyle deal with the issue of gun ownership in a fair and unbiased way in "Armed America", I am truly excited to see what he does with this. He is a Documentarian in the truest sense of the word.”

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6. Vet said... on Oct 7, 2014 at 07:45PM


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7. Vet said... on Oct 7, 2014 at 07:45PM


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8. Anonymous said... on Oct 8, 2014 at 11:03AM

“William cryer bio is a lie!”


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