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New Tattoos Reflect Intensity of War
USA Today  |  May 22, 2007
FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- Before he went to Iraq, Sgt. Chris Freeman got a tattoo of the Chinese symbol for soldier. When he got back he got another, but this one was far different.

The "sleeve" tattoo covering his left arm depicts his struggle to come to grips with war, "a never-ending battle between heaven and hell," says Freeman, a former infantry leader with the 10th Mountain Division.

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"I don't know how it's going to turn out," Freeman said as he watched tattoo artists ink work at Empyre Tattoo in Carthage, 2 miles from Fort Drum.

Tattoo artists whose shops are near military bases say Freeman is typical of many soldiers and Marines returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.

In the beginning they wanted tattoos that identified them by name, religion or simply as soldiers, as Freeman did, says tattoo artist Scott LaGrange, 26, of Forever Tattoos in Evans Mills.

"That's when their religion comes out," LaGrange says. "Crosses, bottles of booze, hearts with 'Mom' and 'Dad.'"

A former Marine and veteran of Afghanistan, LaGrange says those who return are requesting skulls, patriotic phrases or memorials to fallen comrades.

"It's more what had happened to them," he says.

Returning troops often want tattoos to express their intense feelings, or even to blot them out -- if only for a short time.

"A little bit of pain makes you forget about a whole load of it," says Joe Robbins, 37, owner Empyre Tattoo.

Tattoos first came to the modern world when Capt. James Cook returned from the South Pacific with tattooed natives and sailors inked with native tattoos, says C.W. Eldridge, a tattoo historian and artist who founded the Tattoo Archive, a research center for the history of tattoos in Berkeley, Calif.

Professional tattoos first arrived in North America in the 1840s, with Irish, Scottish and English immigrants who moved to New York.

"Tattooing always flourished at war time," Eldridge says. "Soldiers were superstitious and (they) wanted memorials. When they travel across the world, it's a way of making sure you don't forget."

Robbins says that when the war on terrorism started Fort Drum soldiers wanted to identify themselves in case they were killed. They'd get what are called "meat tags" -- with their name, rank, blood type and Social Security number -- tattooed on their ribs. They chose that location in case limbs were lost in an explosion, Robbins says.

Tattoo artist Jim Frost, 36, of Forever Tattoos, flipped through a portfolio showing unit patches, religious symbols and American eagle tattoos that he did for soldiers early in the war. A more recent popular tattoo shows a skeleton climbing out of a coffin and reaching for a Kevlar helmet.

It means "they'll do what they have to for the cost of freedom," Frost says. Another recent tattoo carries the inscription "Never Forgotten" over the 101st Airborne Division banner with its eagle shedding a tear.

Tod Bain, 32, a tattoo artist at About Face Tattoo in Oceanside, Calif., has tattooed many Marines at nearby Camp Pendleton. Early in the conflict, Marines often asked for tattoos showing a skeleton holding a sword with the words "Once a Marine always a Marine."

Another popular Marine tattoo is called "the death dealer." It shows a skeleton holding the ace of spades and means "they're going to war, and they're ready to kill somebody," Bain says.

Some Marines wanted these "gung ho" type of tattoos upon their return, he says. Early in the war, one 18-year-old with a scar on the side of his head sat in Bain's tattoo chair. Bain says the Marine explained that the scar was from an injury during his first tour in Iraq, when an enemy rocket-propelled grenade bounced off his helmet without detonating.

The Marine wanted a tattoo of the Marine Corps motto, "Semper Fidelis," Bain says.

Now, he says, most Marines are asking for memorials.

Recently, Bain did a tattoo for a Marine who lost six buddies in Iraq. It shows six skulls on a mountain of bones and a tombstone with their initials.

Robbins has a poster on his wall of a tattoo he did last year that covered a soldier's entire back. It shows an M-4 rifle planted in a pair of boots and topped with a Kevlar helmet, another popular image. Across the shoulders are the words "For all our fallen soldiers."

Bain, a former Marine himself, says he understands why someone would want such a memorial. "When they're over there, they're brothers," he says. "I feel honored to be helping them out with this type of therapy."

Freeman says sitting for hours and talking to Robbins while he etches a painful tattoo on his skin is "like meeting a psychiatrist."

Tattoos now cover part of one arm, all of another, and parts of his back, abdomen and legs. The tattoos that cover his left arm started while he was home from Iraq on break, with a phoenix above his wrist. Freeman says the immortal regenerative bird symbolizes his soul.

When he returned for good, he put a series of sixes beneath the phoenix to symbolize the devil, and flames around the bird. Going up his arm are clouds, a demon, an angel and another phoenix.

"I don't know the mind of God so I don't know how he feels about the things I've done," Freeman says.

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