He usually keeps his tattoos covered up. On his right forearm, the eagle, globe, and anchor he got after boot camp, a branding symbolizing the Marine Corps, long before he ever made it to Iraq. On his left forearm, a new symbol, in memoriam to all he’d known in his first tour of duty. A battle cross – empty combat boots, a rifle, and a helmet – a common tattoo for those who have seen and felt the death and loss of war. But with his battle cross tattoo, Adam Ward wanted to say something a bit more. The banners surrounding his battle cross read, in Latin, “Dulce Bellum Inexpertis.”
”I searched around until I found a quote that expressed how I felt about the situation,” he said. “It says, ‘War is sweet to the inexperienced.’ Pretty much everyone, when they are first deployed, is really young,” he said. “Nobody really understands what’s going on; everyone’s naïve. People think it’ll be just like the movies, like it’s a joyride, or that we’ll be going around playing paintball. As soon as you get off that plane, you realize it’s not.”
The tattoos serve as a constant reminder to Ward about everything he saw in two tours of duty in Iraq. As documented in The Tattoo Project, a blog dedicated to sharing the stories behind tattoos, Ward’s memorial tattoo symbolizes the funeral services held and attended for his brothers killed in action. Ward, a weapons specialist, was on security and missions duties, and would conduct raids in his first deployment from September 2005 to April 2006. He was there for the hanging of Saddam Hussein, and for the country’s first elections following Hussein’s death.
But he usually keeps his tattoos covered up.
”I don’t really put it out there that I was in the military,” he said. “I don’t think people really need to know. It’s more of a reminder to me.”
Bonnie B. Lehr, the Dallas-Fort Worth-based blogger and photographer who captured several photos of Ward’s body art, said one thing that fascinates her about tattoos is the juxtaposition of the intimacy of the thought many people put into creating their tattoos and the bold outward expression of the personal thoughts. She has spent several years admiring and studying tattoos, and plans to turn her year-long Tattoo Project into a coffee table book as a collection of stories and an homage to the canvases and artists.
“As an outsider, I can just see that something is a beautiful tattoo,” she said. “You can see the result but you can’t see the story behind it. And just because something is beautiful, it doesn’t mean there’s a beautiful meaning behind it.”
Stories like Ward’s are common, Lehr said. Some people wear their body art boldly; others view it as more personal, something for them alone. For well-thought out tattoos, not the ones people get on a whim, there is always a reason to get one.
”Whatever the meaning, positive, negative, whatever, it’s what they feel they need at the time,” she said. “They need it to remember or to forget or to get over something. It seems to be a healing or therapeutic thing for most people.”
Pablo Solomon, an artist and designer who works from his 156-year-old ranch in central Texas, has studied the history of tattoos as art, and has come to several conclusions about the relationship between war and tattoos.
”They really feel that there’s a brotherhood and that general society can’t truly understand them,” he said. “They use tattoos to express the feelings, hopes, fears, and pride that they feel must be repressed in the military and in general society. The more deeply into combat zones, the more tattoos, in general. ”
Tattoos have been around for thousands of years, possibly beginning as a military symbol, he said.
”Even thousands of years ago, getting a tattoo or a branding was a ritual,” he said. “Warriors of all cultures tended to tattoo or brand themselves throughout time either as part of initiation rituals or to strike fear in their enemies. On one level, people hate warriors for being tough guys, but the tattoos can show they are part of a group. One of the really interesting things is, they usually use them as a way to find peace after war.”
Ward, 25, who is now a junior at Texas Christian University studying kinesiology and hopes to one day start his own gym, will carry his visual reminder of war with him everywhere he goes, even if only he can see it.
”A lot of guys going in are really young, we all get the first tattoo, the branding,” he said. “But the memorial tattoo is not something we really talk about.”