“Outside of having kids, getting tattooed is one of the worst mistakes a person can make, yet somehow (much like having kids) millions of people do it every year.” ~Aviva Yael
“She said, ‘a tattoo is a badge of validation’. But the truth of the matter is far more revealing. It’s a permanent reminder of a temporary feeling.” ~Jimmy Buffett, Beach House on the Moon
Do you have a tattoo? If so, what’s the story behind your ink? If you don’t have a tattoo, what might you consider getting emblazoned permanently on your skin? I think many people, even most people ask themselves such questions silently and without witness, and although tattoos are more popular than ever, how many really go to the permanent extreme? And, perhaps more interesting, why do people reach such a dramatically inked conclusion??
I am inked, and it’s one of my past Far East Flings. And while the physical tat was implanted here in Okinawa in 2005, the genesis of my body-art goes back many years. My ink is not for daily public consumption, generally speaking. It is positioned so that it can be covered by a collared shirt, and a short-sleeve tee only hints at its presence on my upper back. Back in 2005 when I was still on Active Duty, the Navy’s tattoo policy was referred to as the “25 percent rule,” which stated that no more than 25 percent of any limb or part of the body that does not show while in uniform could be tattooed. Tattoos on those portions visible were required to be no larger than an open hand for lower arms (fingers together), and no larger than a closed fist for women on their legs that would show in a uniform skirt. The neck has always been and is still off-limits in the Navy for tattooing…. Although I’m the last to follow the rules of “The Man,” at the time I was bound. So, initially my tattoo was small, and relatively hidden on my upper back.
I had been contemplating a tattoo for quite some time prior to 2004-2005, but the real dilemma in a tattoo is exactly what Jimmy Buffett captured in the opening quotes: no matter how well thought through, and how well graphically and symbolically planned, a tattoo is a permanent symbol of something that is more likely than not temporal in nature. Sure, we all like to think that certain core elements of our internal nature don’t change or meander with the wanderings of time. And while that may be true for the most central elements of character (once we reached something like our mid-20s), for most everything else we are continually and constantly shaped and molded by our environment’s intersection and quite possibly conflict with our inner-selves. It can’t be helped; we, in this shared human condition, lead both evolutionary and, at times, revolutionary lifestyles that are seldom, if at all, static. Change is really one of the only constants through time.
So, what to choose? This is the short, simple question that kept me at bay for literally years. But my plans and schemes were evolving. You see, starting in the late 1990’s, I began to change my opinions and views of man, mankind, and the nature of violence, armed conflict, and the devastation and suffering they cause for mere political aims. Up until that point, I was more than happy to be on the “tip of the spear” flying attack aircraft off of aircraft carriers as a Bombardier-Navigator in the mighty A-6E Intruder. Carry a nuke or two? Sure! Toss cluster munitions on troops in the open? NP. Drop a string of “dumb” 2,000 pound bombs across more than 600 feet of city streets to take out one simple telecommunications building in the heart of Basra, Iraq? Well, if you say so. Of course there are losers and winners in war, so might as well be on the aggressive, winning side…. Or so I thought.
That all changed rather abruptly in 1998. Two things struck home, in relative quick succession, coupled no doubt by a universe unfolding pretty much how it should. While training to go over to Italy in support of the Bosnia conflicts at the time, I went to see the then new movie Saving Private Ryan on the Army Ranger base where I was stationed. Most people seeing the flick were in uniform, and were there at that particular base training for the exactly that as was portrayed on the silver screen. Needless to say, after the movie and upon exiting the theater, there wasn’t a word spoken. By anyone. The only other time I’ve ever experienced anything like this mass silent contemplation was after seeing The Passion of Christ. That’s pretty good company I would say. Up until that point war movies had only really touched on the nerves that Ryan was able to make sing, and certainly it should give anyone pause in considering the glory of warfare.
And then off to Bosnia I went where I was the NATO Training Chief at the Combined Air Operations Cell (CAOC) in Vicenza, Italy. Now, this – being “forced” to live in Italy in a flat with a rental car and weekends off – was pretty much the best unplanned thing to happen to me in the military, besides maybe being “forced” to Okinawa the first time. BUT, there is no free lunch; every good deal comes with a price, and no good deed goes unpunished. And the price was seeing a truly devastated region of the world…from the ground, up close and personal…not from 20,000 feet in a relatively safe, sterile cockpit. Sarajevo was an occupied city, and suffered a level of destruction reminiscent of the old WWII photos of any number of unnamed bombed-out German cities late in the war. The only thing keeping the peace was literally armored personnel carriers (APCs) and combat troops stationed at every intersection. There were no-go minefields everywhere signified with what appeared to be yellow crime-scene tape. Most all the glass was gone – shot out and destroyed, cemeteries were vandalized and degraded, and many of the destroyed buildings were left as-is out of fear of bobby-traps inside. The hotel were the allied forces headquarters was located was formerly a resort spa and hot springs; the massage rooms in the basement had been turned into torture chambers, and the locker rooms served as executioners’ hallows; there were bullet holes all over the walls to serve as silent witness to the brutality and genocide that had occurred there. It was a truly shocking experience for me, something that began, finally, to open my eyes to the personal role that I was playing in the military-industrial complex that is, quite simply put, cold and numb to the human condition.
Then in the fall of 1999, I found myself on the ground in East Timor (Indonesia) as part of the military stabilization force sent there to stop a brutal civil war and more genocide. Cities burned to the ground and massive amounts of people which the military refers to as “Internally Displaced Persons (IDP),” or, citizen refugees in their own country. I was at the Dili Airfield when the first of the IDPs were returned to their home regions within East Timor. The streams of people coming off the C-130 transport aircraft were overcome with emotion at being returned and reunited with their homeland; women would come up to me crying, hugging me, utterly and emoting what could only mean thanks, happiness, and sadness all at the same time. Men would drop to their knees with their hands clasped in a profound combination of prayer and thanks. And, in a scene out of any number of nameless WWII movies, I actually got to play the American GI who hands out MRE ration candies and food to all the children, who, without exception, and even though surely quite shell-shocked by the whole affair, responded as all kids do – with a great big if not shy smile!
These experiences forced me to generate a new view of the world, one where any type of violence waged en masse on a people, country or region has unimaginably horrible and long-lasting consequences. There are always innocents who pay the price in any war. And when the rich wage war, which they have always done and continue to do, no matter the country concerned, no matter the political party that beats the drums of war, and no matter how righteous and well-intentioned the military forces involved may be, it is always the poor that die, and everyone suffers.
This all had a profound effect on me as a warrior. I had no qualms about supporting Kuwait in 1990-1994, where I deployed twice via aircraft carrier under the Bush 41 and then the Clinton Administrations. I had no issue stepping in to help stop the wanton violence and undeniable genocide and ethnic cleansing being doled out throughout the former Yugoslavia. But when it came to the “Global War on Terror (GWOT)” and the rhetoric of the Bush 43 Administration, I had grave misgivings about our country’s goals, exit strategies, let alone the reality of what really could be accomplished with yet another imperial western power waging a modern crusade against the Middle East.
Okay, maybe the GWOT shouldn’t be quite characterized to such an extreme, but I felt we were clearly on the wrong path, and that going back into Iraq in 2003 – Iraq has never been about any “war on terror” – would be perhaps the worst mistake our country would make for the 21st Century. We’ll see. I was beginning to have a harder and harder time in the military, and found myself questioning authority, our country’s leadership, and my own role in the whole quagmire.
So, in 2004 I found myself quite troubled at deploying, on no-notice, to Iraq with the 31st MEU for an 8-month cruise aboard the USS Essex in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The only conclusion I could reach at the time was that I would do whatever it took to protect the lives of US servicemen and women; the political aims and military objectives quite honestly I could give a shit about. The 31st MEU during that period from the fall of 2004 through the spring of 2005 lost over 50 marines (55 if memory serves me correctly), a price much too high in my mind for what was accomplished – or not – in Iraq. In my opinion, one marine’s life wasn’t worth today’s outcomes in that part of the world.
This long story slowly led me to the conclusion and that we – mankind – are our own worst enemies. It is not nature, not the environment, pollution, or global warming. It is not about energy or other natural resources, nor about freedom or the type of government one country may have, or even about what supernatural power or being to which you may or may not pray. It is in our very capacity to do harm, so quickly, so easily, and with so little thought about the unintended consequences and 2nd and 3rd order effects that always result in and when killing. Individually we are all responsible for these aftereffects; however, it can verge on the obscene when a population either endorses or even encourages unbounded aggression. This formulation and collusion of ideas, combined with my traumatic exposure to scenes of massive death and destruction in Banda Ache, Indonesia, after the tsunami of 2004 changed my very core.
So, how to translate all these conflicted and dark feelings into permanent art, to be adorned on my body? That was still difficult. I knew the direction I wanted to take, but continued to toy graphically with how best to symbolize such feelings succinctly, yet in a way that would translate well onto my skin. I remembered back to a Discover or National Geographic article from years prior an article that focused on a team of professionals from many varied walks of life who were given the responsibility for designing a warning “system” that would cap our proposed nuclear waste dumping sites in the mountains of the west (see an interesting blog here). Oh, and it had to last a minimum of 10,000 years, and it could not be language-based or centric. Think about it – that stuff stays dangerous for a mighty long time (some of it with a half-life of 220,000 years), and there’s no guarantee that language or our current notions of denoting “danger” would apply to the peoples – or even aliens – that could trespass that far into the future. I can no longer recall the details of the article, but I remember an artist’s portrayal of a series of very long, sharp spires and blades made of the hardest metals and stone (spike fields and landscape of thorns), somewhat loosely based on the sharp points of the biohazard symbol in common use today.
That was it!! The biohazard symbol! I could scale it to fit the Navy’s silly “25% rule,” and could position it so that it was high on my back, but hidden in uniform. I could add a touch of color by shading the inside yellow, helping the bold, thick black border to standout against my skin (and through my already graying back-hair – yikes!). So, I began toying with the graphical treatment in earnest. BUT, still, there’s that idea of permanence on your body, and when are you “sure enough” to pull the trigger, umm, or go under the needles?
I became sure once I discovered my wife cheating on me with Okinawa’s revolving buffet of boys, courtesy of Gate 2 street and Club Fujiyama’s (among other places). But those details are for a different blog…which will be covered soon. However, my ink already started to dry, philosophically speaking, as soon as I knew my marriage was liquefying down the drain.
The pain of a disintegrating 16 year marriage and 18 year relationship was almost too much for me on top of all the other emotional turmoil I was attempting to deal with at the time. But this pain also fit perfectly into the motif of the now congealing tattoo conception swirling around in my head. My biohazard idea of mankind being warned against itself could – and was for me – extended to include those wars, conflicts and smaller upheavals we all find almost omnipresent in our daily lives. Like those suffering a marriage in catastrophic collapse, or perhaps for those that agonize as the product of a double-crossing, back-stabbing best friend or close coworker. Sure, this all fits! I become more and more sure of this direction.
But the coup de grace for me was this: enduring the physical pain of the tattoo would be, for me, a form of corporeal catharsis, where I would forever and always associate the pain of that particular encounter with the emotional pain I was suffering at the time. I would endure, and be better for it, by channeling much of my turmoil to be vanquished…or at least contained by this other form of suffering, a memory that is still vividly alive with me today as it was back in the fall of 2005.
After some finalizing of my design, and after carefully selecting a tattoo artist and shop that ended up being located almost directly across from the Camp Foster “Commissary Gate” (it is still there), and after scaling appropriately and checking placement of the stencil actually on my back, the artistic performance started. I had my iPod, I had my earphones, and I cranked the angry white punk music I was so fond of at the time: New Found Glory, Yellowcard, Chevelle, Disturbed, Finch, Evanescence, Hawthorne Heights, Matchbook Romance, Senses Fail and Nine Inch Nails to name but a few (Interestingly enough I still listen to angry white music, but now it’s more of the rock genre: Metallica, Linkin Park, Korn, and The Offspring). I recall jamming, listening to a playlist created especially for this event (how I wish I had a hardcopy to better remember it by!), and I reminisce suppressing the pain below, much as described by Chevelle’s Send the Pain Below:But long before, having hurt, I’d send the pain below, I’d send the pain below. Where I need it.
So that is the story of my first ink, but it is not the final story. Much like Buffet’s quote at the opening, the permanence of that ink reminder in 2005 reflected only what become a temporal phase in my life…although it took another five years for my psyche to drift far enough away from this viewpoint for me to again seek a change and new ink. Unfortunately I do not have, handy at least, a clean and clear picture of that initial tattoo, and I don’t want to spoil an upcoming follow-blog posting about my most recent ink’d transition I undertook in 2011.
And that – and a pic (or two) of my ink, my friends, is for my next Tattoo You installment.
- Tattoo Military History (inkedtattoo.wordpress.com)
- Daily Prompt: Tattoo…You? (poetrycrash.wordpress.com)
- Daily Prompt: Tattoo….You? (timzauto.wordpress.com)
- Tattoos: A form of Personal Expression (vsalzblog.wordpress.com)
- Work and Tattoos (bristoltattooremoval.wordpress.com)
- Tattoos – Part 1 (katiemorningstar.wordpress.com)