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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Natasha Bay

E5, Oregon National Guard, 2003–2007 / Task Force Phoenix 5, 41st BCT (L)  

I decided when I was in Afghanistan that I was going to work on two full-sleeve tattoos. The right side was going to be “heaven” and the left side was going to be “hell”—evil and good, just like Afghanistan. I was in the most dangerous part of that place for a year and I learned to take the good with the bad—roll with the punches—you can’t really effect everything in life; sometimes you just have to take it. In Afghanistan I realized nothing is completely good and nothing is completely bad, some things just are. That’s all that mission was. It was just bad throughout the day, and when the day’s over you realize that it wasn’t as bad as you thought it was when you were in it.

My main mission was to inform the infantry people that went outside the wire what was going to happen to them when they got on the road. Informing them of where they would most likely get hurt and how to avoid it—lots of IEDs—no matter where you went, it was a bad trip, it was just hot spots everywhere.

I get really frustrated sometimes because I feel like we’re really fighting the other forgotten war—when I got home for leave, a lot of my friends were joking that Afghanistan wasn’t that bad—they just didn’t even know. And they don’t know that it’s not all bad—we’re doing good things—we’re training the Afghan people to do better for their country, to fight against the people that aren’t going to do them any good; nobody understands that we were doing good over there—that it wasn’t just going outside of the wire and killing people.

I got this tattoo in November of 2007, at the Lucky Dog Tattoo Shop in Seaside. Bob Roughton did it. I took my boyfriend out with me, he got a little tattoo, too, then four hours later, I got mine. It was kind of sunny down in Seaside, which is unusual, so we went down to the beach. I used to live there for 14 years, so it was a lot of me getting caught up on what had changed and what it looked like. We walked on the beach, went and looked at my old house and then went to dinner. I joined when I was 17, that was four and a half years ago.

Bill Guarnere

E5, United States Army, 1942–1945 / Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division

I got this paratrooper tattoo after D-Day. Me and Johnny Martin got a pass for London. When you go on a pass overseas in England you hitchhike. All the trucks are going your way, they take you, then you get off and another truck picks you up. We wound up at an Air Force base, a Royal Air Force base. We got something to eat and a couple of pilots come over to us and started talking to us and they said, “You want to come to Scotland?”

“You gotta be kidding!” They were fighter pilots, they had these Spitfires, so Johnny got in one and I got in the other one. It took about 12 minutes, we got to Edinburgh, Scotland. That’s when we got the tattoos. Drunk as a skunk. If I was sober I never would have gotten it, but I was drunk. We had a good time up there. Edinburgh, 1944. Right after D-Day. Drunk. I would never get tattoos sober. Johnny Martin, he just died about a year ago. When we come back, I went up to see him right after the war. He lived up in Columbus, Ohio. [My wife] Frannie and I went to see him and he said to me quietly: “Don’t tell my mom I have a tattoo, and don’t tell her I drink.” He was nothing but a souse! You can’t hide the damn tattoo, and you can’t hide the fact that you drink. And when they found out, they blamed me. So I took the blame.

This one here [left arm], you can just about see, it’s a cross and it’s got my brother’s name on it—“Dunc,” that’s my brother who was killed in Italy, that was his nickname “Dunc,” that’s like a cross with a wreath on it. He’s buried in Cassino, Italy. That’s the last one I got done.

Reta and her son, Robert Rae

E3, United States Marine Corps, 2002-2006 / Tattoos by Jim Quinn, Inkjam

Robert: The tattoo on my forearm, my unit symbol, I was with Third Battalion, Second Marines, weapons company. It’s the EGA—Eagle, Globe, and Anchor—with a sword and the letters “OIF,” Operation Iraqi Freedom; 0/3-31—that was my MOS, machine gunner, and on the inside of my arm I have two spent rounds, shell casings, and my buddy’s name and the date he was KIA on our deployment and I was hit by an IED myself—you can’t really get an IED tattoo, so I did the next best thing, I got a frag-grenade with someblast behind it.

Reta: My tattoo says “Marine daughter, wife, mom.” My father served, my husband served, my sons served, and my daughter did a stint in the Army. My grandfather served in Vietnam and then my dad served in Desert Storm; both of my boys served in Iraq. Sending a child to war is... hell. You want to support them as hard as they can—you’re proud, because very few people are standing in line today to serve in our military. I saw my mom go through it; I met my husband shortly after he got home from Beirut; and I had two boys who went through in the Marine Corps, so it’s been a family thing. We don’t always necessarily agree with our children’s decisions... no parent wants to bury their children first. We prayed night and day when my oldest was in Iraq. I’ve never been so scared in my life. But I was proud of him—if you love them, then you make the sacrifice with them.

I was on Mass. Ave. coming home from work, about 1:30 in the afternoon, and I got a phone call and it was my Bob and he says, “Mom, I’ve been hit and I’m hurt, I’m alive but I’m hurt.” And then the phone went dead. I was screaming into the phone, “Rob, Rob, Rob, talk to me!” but there was nothing. And we went three days and there was no information no calls ... nothing. And we didn’t know if he was dead or alive. As long as there’s a breath left in them, they let them call home. I didn’t know how bad he was, and the pain and sorrow of losing a child—I was not prepared to sacrifice a child. And then a week and a half later I got a call that he was recovering and in the Iraqi hospital. And I’ve never been so grateful in my life, but I still wanted my son home. And when he arrived in North Carolina back from Iraq—I’ve never been so happy to see someone in my life, so happy. He’s been my savior.

I got my tattoo when Bob was still overseas, after he was injured.

Nicholas Cherry

E5, United States Army, 2001-2010 / A-Company 3/67 ARBN; Afghanistan (2002), Iraq (2004 and 2007) / Tattoos by Dre Collins, Ft. Hood, Texas; Killer Tattoos, Killen, Texas; PFC Andrew Gerdner Remadi, Iraq; Lori Allen, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The second time I got shot I was in Iraq. We were riding in a convoy and I had my arm out the window and this random bullet just hit me in the arm. I said, “Hey! I just got shot!” Someone behind me said, “Are you dead?” I said, “No” and they said, “Well, wrap that shit up.” So I wrapped a bandage around my arm and about a half-mile up the road we hit an IED and our vehicle rolled over. I hit the roof on the inside. My heart stopped and they brought me back with the paddles, it’s just like in the movies. I remember I was completely numb and they paddled me and it was like going from being asleep to falling off the bed into a tub of ice water. I was in the hospital for 11 months after that. I got a tattoo of a zombie right over the bullet scar because I’d been dead and I came back. I have a tattoo for every bad thing that happened to me in the Army. I have 18 tattoos.

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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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