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Etched in Ink

A Contra Costa County Library online exhibit joins veterans and civilians in new ways.


Noah Bailey, Army, Grass Valley / Photography By Johann Wolf

Noah Bailey, an Army veteran from Contra Costa, lost both his legs in Afghanistan during an ambush. Back home, he couldn’t shake the trauma, and after his marriage fell apart, Bailey hit rock bottom—“[I had] a gun in my mouth multiple times,” he says. He crawled back from despair and, in February, welcomed a daughter with his new partner, but his war experience will always be recorded on his skin with a tattoo of a flaming Humvee, and winged Chuck Taylor sneakers flying toward heaven.

Bailey is one of 24 veterans who bare their ink and their souls in War Ink, an online exhibit through the Contra Costa County Library that shares the stories of California veterans.

Named after tattoos that honor fallen soldiers or pay tribute to transformative events from combat, War Ink was developed by Jason Deitch, an army veteran and consultant from Martinez, and Chris Brown, senior manager at the library, to share stories of struggle and survival, and to foster a dialogue with civilians here at home.

Diablo talked to Deitch and Brown about the project.


 John Hamling, Army, El Cerrito / Photography By Johann Wolf

Q: War Ink has gotten a lot of attention from news outlets—including Newsweek, USA Today, PBS, and Buzzfeed—and has more than 59,000 engagements on social media sites and YouTube. Why has it captured people’s attention?
A: Deitch: Because it’s real. It’s authentic, and it’s allowing people to have a very human experience. These are people who have been caricatured as heroes or ticking time bombs of post-traumatic stress disorder. There are stereotypes and a shallowness that come from a civilian’s limited war experience, and it’s almost like people have been grateful to be able to feel their humanity.

Q: Why did you use documentary filming, photography, and audio rather than just one medium? And why did you create an online exhibit rather than a traditional, in-person library display?
A: Deitch: What we’re trying to convey is not simply a picture of a tattoo but what the subjects have gone through, and the story of the war they brought home inside them.
Brown: We’re trying to draw veterans out of isolation and get civilians interested in their stories. You can’t do that unless there’s a robust sense of a person, which requires their voice or seeing them on film to encompass their humanity.
Deitch: And to see yourself in them. It becomes difficult to distance yourself when you have seen them in all of these different formats. They take on so much humanity.
Brown: We created an online exhibit because this level of reach and engagement wouldn’t be possible without an online exhibit, or at least a very strong online presence.

 Victoria Lord, Navy, San Diego  / Photography By Johann Wolf

Q: Why did you focus on tattoos as the way to tell veterans’ stories?
A: Brown: We wanted something immediately identifiable to people back home—people who didn’t serve in war. It’s a mode of expression both civilians and veterans share.
Deitch: Tattoos have long been a tradition of the military. They are a map of where a person has gone, and what his or her experience has been. They are a metaphor for a lot of the subjective experience of war, and claiming and memorializing those experiences.
Brown: There are not a lot of ways to express yourself before or after wartime. This is one of those few ways in which it happens.

 Patrick McQuaid, Navy, Oakley   / Photography By Johann Wolf

Q: Was it challenging to find participants willing to open up?
A: Deitch: We knew we had to get the word out as far as possible because getting the veteran population activated can be hard. And this was a project that addressed things that are not norms in military culture or veteran culture.
Brown: It was new and unprecedented for a lot of them. It’s an unknown. It’s them candidly telling their own story, how they tell it on their own body.

Q: What was the process like once you started filming?
A: Deitch: When we did the principal photography and documentary filming and oral history over a four-day period at the Concord Vet Center, something quite extraordinary happened, something that in my years in the army and my eight years of being a veteran consultant and advocate I had never seen before.

It became such a safe and supportive community: These people were able to tell their entire stories without filtering. We had participants who had been cold, stoic infantry guys that had seen the atrocities of war running around laughing and smiling with incredible exuberance and energy.

I’m blessed to have a little daughter, who was born in November [when the battle of Phantom Fury took place]. And so now this month of November really takes on a new meaning. It’s not just doom and gloom. It’s new, full of life, and happy.” - Mike Ergo, Marines, Walnut Creek

Mike Ergo, Marines, Walnut Creek / Photography By Johann Wolf

Q: What was the feedback from the veterans who participated?
A: Brown: This project gave them a positive experience and a landmark in their lives back home as a civilian, not as a soldier. It’s obvious that, for so many of these men and women, their service was the high point in their lives, in terms of purpose and feeling like they were dedicating themselves to something really worthwhile. To see them have that experience of purpose as civilians was huge.
Deitch: What stands out is a very special thing that happened a couple days after the launch. Brown and I got a text from one of the participants, a young guy named Zak Bass. A picture came through of him sitting in a tattoo chair, getting the War Ink emblem tattooed on his arm.

He had other tattoos that marked the most foundational moments of his life. He had done the same thing with War Ink because for him, War Ink had created an entirely new, positive viewpoint for the journey he’s beginning now that will bring him much further home than he actually was before.

The thing that has hit me the hardest was just seeing how happy the veterans who participated in the project have been. To see them all laugh and smile. To see so, so many of them bond with each other and revitalize extraordinary friendship in a very specific way that only military culture can produce. Witnessing that happen has been so strong as to shake me personally.

It also has become a forceful argument for Brown and me about the need to reproduce this experience for veterans across the nation, and even internationally.

The top half, before we went to Afghanistan, was more of a comforting thing. In the beginning of a deployment, you don’t really care if you die, because if you’re afraid of dying the whole time you’re over there, it makes it hard to make good decisions. And then two of my guys were shot . . . and so the bottom half was just paying my respects.” -  Jeff Moore, Marines, San Ramon

Jeff Moore, Marines, San Ramon / Photography By Johann Wolf

Q: There’s a Your Role tab on the War Ink site, which asks for civilian responses. What do you hope will come from this exhibit?
A: Brown: War Ink is really aiming to influence people on a local level, so when they see a veteran, read about veterans in the news, or hear about voting issues that will impact veterans, they understand and know the people it is going to affect.

People that go to war are changed in foundational ways. When they come home, the change isn’t necessarily reflected around them, which is a recipe for alienation and isolation. Finding a shared artistic format between vets and civilians means we’re able to get the two groups to dialogue. warink.org.

David Cascante, ARMY, Pleasant Hill / Photography By Johann Wolf

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