Comrades on Arms: Exhibit explores military tattoos

By TOM VOGT | The Columbian | Published: February 17, 2013

There is serious artwork on these warriors, created as tributes to fallen comrades or to signal a personal peace with a 40-year-old war.

And there are some cartoon characters, done on a whim.

That's the range of military-inspired tattoos in a new exhibit at the Clark County Historical Museum.

Eleven local military veterans or reservists shared their tattoos -- as well as their stories -- for "Vet Ink," which opens Tuesday.

The illustrations adorning Kyle Olsen and Victoria Parker commemorate soldiers who were killed in combat operations.

Not everybody gets it, said Parker, an Army staff sergeant who was part of a military police unit in Iraq. Her tattoo includes an image of boots, rifle and helmet, five sets of initials and five dates of death from January 2007 through November 2007.

"People will ask me, 'Are those your kids?'" said Parker, who is a reservist attending Washington State University Vancouver.

"They're all from 2007," she exclaimed. "Does that even make sense?"

Richard Alvarez sports a fairly recent design, but it took decades for the Army veteran to walk into a Portland tattoo parlor. It finally seemed to be the right time in 2008, even though it had been 35 years since Alvarez served in Vietnam.

The tattoo on his left bicep -- a hand wrapped around the neck of a dragon -- is the battalion crest of the 504th Military Police. It includes the battalion's motto: "Duty Justice Honor."

His MP unit didn't break up bar fights in Saigon, Alvarez explained. Mostly, they were convoy escorts; they also patrolled highways and responded when vehicles were ambushed, or when a Vietnamese minibus collided with a tank.

"I thought about a tattoo for years and years," Alvarez said. "I wanted something meaningful."

And, it took a long time to, as Alvarez phrases it, "make friends with Vietnam."

The tattoo was a way to bring closure. It also is a tribute to the buddies he served with, including a couple who got hit, he said.

"When I got it, I really liked it," he said.

And Alvarez really likes what the image represents: "Dragon and hand, evil and good."

Olsen's tattoo lists three Oregon National Guard soldiers who were killed in the same attack in Baghdad on June 4, 2004.

Olsen's quick-reaction force was dispatched.

"When we left, we only knew we had wounded," Olsen said in his application for the exhibit. "We had no idea we had already lost two soldiers and would soon lose a third. A rescue mission had suddenly become a casualty-collection mission."

Later, Olsen explained why he waited until Veterans Day in 2011 to get the tattoo.

"While you're deployed, there is not much processing you can do with events of that nature; it doesn't hit you until you get back," he said.

And when you're back, there isn't always a lot of time for reflection, he said.

"From the day I demobilized and went back to work was two weeks," he added.

The timing for the tattoo was a matter of "how long it took me to put the pieces back together, all the good stuff and all the bad stuff, until I was ready to do something," Olsen said.

Then there was the matter of volunteering for the "Vet Ink" exhibit. It's another way of dealing with some issues.

"I tend to be a relatively introverted person," Olsen said. "I need to be more open."

Navy veteran Bob Fry represents the other end of the range, with a tattoo of a skunk in a sailor's uniform on his bicep. Fry was a cook on a submarine -- a job that was vital, but not always appreciated. The food "was never as good as their mother's cooking. We heard a lot of that," he said.

Fry and another sailor got their tattoos in a shop along Hotel Street in Honolulu. He liked the image of the sailor-suited skunk, Fry said, because "I was proud of the Navy."

Other influences might have been in play since their route included a bar stop or two.

"We'd kind of been tipping a few," Fry noted.

Brad Richardson, a museum staff member, interviewed each participant for the exhibit's text.

Kate Singh photographed the tattoos in her downtown Vancouver studio, Aevum Images, to create the display panels.

This is not Singh's first experience with military tattoos, by the way. She spent 20 years as a U.S. Army nurse, from Vietnam to Desert Storm. Singh saw a lot of GI skin -- and not just guys with their shirts off.

"There a were a lot of them with no clothes at all," the former Army nurse said. "We would talk about what their tattoo was."

Her part of the conversation could include, "How drunk were you when you got that one?"

If a tattoo had undergone an obvious modification -- maybe a rose or a name that had been re-inked ... well, there was a simple explanation. The soldier would say: "She broke my heart."

Spc. Brian Cook shows off a tattoo that he got after a deployment to Iraq. "Our entire platoon got this one," said Cook, a fuel operator with B Company, 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment at Combat Outpost Black Hawk.


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