Veterans’ Tattoos Tell Story of Self
Writer / Haylee Brannon
Walking down the halls of the Indianapolis Art Center, one can find many intriguing pieces of art sure to evoke a variety of emotions, but one exhibit on display right now is particularly soul catching.
The exhibition named ‘The Things They Brought Home: Military Tattoos’ takes up its own gallery in one of the halls of the Art Center with photographs of veterans with tattoos.
At first glance it would seem the focus of the exhibit are the tattoos, but after reading the stories attached to the photographs, you will notice a rather impactful theme.
These veterans have turned their bodies into storybooks, each one with a wildly different tale from the other.
The idea for the project spawned from Art Center volunteer Paul Richard, a Vietnam War veteran who spent most of his life working in and consulting for museums.
After hearing about an exhibit highlighting military tattoos in a small Washington state historical society, he decided to pitch the idea to Michelle Winkelman, the Director of Education and Outreach and Alyson Walbridge, the New Audiences Program Manager at the Indianapolis Art Center.
The project was set into motion in late spring and went into exhibition during the Spirit and Place Festival, an annual festival aimed to ignite creativity and strengthen the community. In addition to the festival, the exhibit tied into the Art Center’s annual Veterans Art Day – a day specifically for veterans to come take classes for free.
Michelle said the project was unique in nature because [veterans] acted as the curators of the exhibit, whereas in most cases there is an exhibition director.
“This project was a way to connect [veterans] on an individual level and include them as a participant in the process and engage them in their creative and artistic sides,” Michelle said.
The first part of the project was recruiting people to participate. Once they had enough people committed, the Art Center collaborated with the Indiana Writers Center to help guide the veterans in a writing process to produce their stories. Michelle helped facilitate that process.
“For a lot of them it was their first time [at the Art Center] so I got a chance to welcome them into our space and tell them what we do,” Michelle said.
Michelle said there were a few uncomfortable moments because it felt kind of like high school English class, but said as they delved deeper into the process many of them opened up.
Her takeaway from this experience was meeting the guys and watching them interact with one another in what she described as an unspoken bond through shared experiences.
“It was such a great way to connect on this really basic social level with people who I may not have spoken with or met otherwise and that is what is really neat about projects like this and art in general,” Michelle said.
The photographers, Dan Helrigel and Jeff Jeffries, who brought the stories of these men to life, hail as perhaps one of the most important components to the exhibit.
Dan said each photo shoot was short, spanning 10-15 minutes in length, but for him those moments were deeply revealing of what these men were willing to share.
“My recurring thought while photographing was how brave it was to share such personal thoughts about such an impactful and emotional subject to them,” Dan said. “Just thinking back on it now makes me tear up.”
Jeff Jeffries, who not only had a part in the photography, but was also a participant in the project, said the photographing was not as personal to him as the being photographed was.
“Being a veteran myself it was kind of easy shooting these portraits,” Jeff said. “These guys and I all had to stand in a room in our underwear with a hundred strangers when we were in [the military],” Jeff said. “This wasn’t anything we hadn’t already done before.”
He said being a participant in the project was more impactful because he wasn’t used to being the person in front of the lens.
Jeff’s story of his tattoos ties up a theme amongst the rest of the exhibit – a symbol of pride for serving his country.
The exhibit hangs in the Community Gallery with intent to engage a broader scope of the community and provide an opportunity for veterans to get more involved in that space.
For Paul Richard this exhibition symbolizes the human experience of serving in the military and personifies it through the creation of art and expression.
“I want [the viewers] to have a deeper understanding of what serving means,” Richard said. “When someone says ‘thank you for your service’ it doesn’t get to the heart of what that actually means.”
Paul’s tattoo story is slightly different. He got his nearly 26 years after serving in the military, while the other participants were tatted during their service.
He said he wanted his tattoo to be less about him and more of an ode to his wife, who served in the Army.
“What is lacking from this exhibit are the stories of women veterans, which is a goal in mind for next time,” Paul said.
The team has plans to make this a traveling exhibition, extending it to other parts of the state in communities where more involvement in art and with veterans is needed.
The exhibition will hang in the Art Center’s Community Gallery until January 28. If you haven’t yet seen it, be sure not to miss it.