Jason Deitch went under the needle while adjusting to civilian life after a decade serving as a U.S. Army medic. The tattoo on his right forearm depicts a coffin-encased skeleton, its disembodied skull at its feet. Around it, Latin text, which translates to, "Deformed from head to heel."
The phrase, from the Roman Legion of the Republic, referred to the view amongst soldiers that their strength came from their diversity, Deitch says. Soldiers from Africa, Spain, Gaul and every corner of the Roman Republic made up the legion, a cohort "deformed and misshapen," made up of disparate identities. In talking to veterans over the years, Deitch, now 45 and a veterans rights activist, realized that so many had similarly allusive stories behind their body art, signposts to memorialize events, people and experiences on their skin.
"I thought someone should capture this," he says. "Tattoos have been part of military life for generations, but younger veterans have become so good at expressing themselves to tattoo artists and the art of it has evolved so what we see is so much more meaningful."
With that in mind, he teamed up with Bay Area libraries and the StoryCorps to launch "War Ink," an exhibit of Iraq and Afghanistan veteran memorial tattoo art.
The project, which launches in time for Veterans Day in November, is looking for inked-up Bay Area veterans to participate, to give the public a chance to "explore the unfiltered record of war that veterans have documented on their bodies," Deitch says.
The exhibit, co-created by Deitch and Contra Costa County Library Project Director Chris Brown, will consist of a multimedia display accessible from library websites of tattoo art of 30 veterans throughout California. StoryCorps, the national nonprofit dedicated to preserving oral history, will record each chosen veteran talking about why they got their tattoos. Photojournalist Shaun Roberts will take photos of the tattoos.
Deitch will choose veterans who best depict the region's diversity in terms of geography, gender, branch of service and type of tattoo. He hopes the resulting exhibit will give civilians insight into the minds of returning veterans, who might otherwise feel unwelcome to share their experience after years immersed in a stoic, suck-it-up military culture.
"This project is a chance for the public to hear the authentic and honest voice of veteran culture," Deitch says, "reaching into and interacting with the communities veterans are struggling to rejoin."
Veterans interested in participating can contact Deitch at firstname.lastname@example.org or 510.593.8423.