Tattooed Under Fire

You can’t un-see, un-smell, un-hear what happens.

— Jonathan Evans

The River City Tattoo Parlor in Killeen, Texas is only a few minutes down the road from Fort Hood. Before last Thursday’s shootings, the military base was best known for being the largest in the United States, the site that processes hundreds of soldiers in and out of war zones. Many of those soldiers head over to River City to mark their comings or goings, to remember where they’ve been or prepare for who they’ll be. Shop owner Roxanne Willis appreciates the in-betweenness of the space, and describes her own mixed feelings about its functions. “I understand the discipline of [the military],” she says, “I really support our troops, these young boys for doing their duty, so to speak, but I don’t like the duty.” Still, she smiles, “I feel good about the tattoos we do here. It’s like a piece of magic they can take with ’em.”

Roxanne’s hope for her clients serves as a helpful introduction to Tattooed Under Fire. Nancy Schiesari‘s documentary is most obviously about soldiers’ tattoos, with several describing why they get them or how they’ve designed them. It mostly takes their view on the matter, beginning with a title card that reads, “Soldiers claim that 95% of them have at least one tattoo.” This despite the restrictions imposed by their employer, that is, according to a combat medic named Anthony, “I can’t get anything that will show in my dress uniform, so I figured I’ll just tattoo up to it and finish it when I get out.” He reveals a chest and arms richly decorated, stopping just at his collar. “In the Army,” he adds, “I have took like everyone else,” so the “tattoo is my way of expressing myself. When I’m not in uniform, I am somebody different. I am me.” At the same time, Anthony reveals, he’s joined the military not because of the usual patriotism, but out of a broad sense of community: “We’re not helping out Americans” in Iraq, he says, “But we’re helping out humans. We’re humans before we’re Americans.”

If Anthony’s dual sense of self — unique and somehow universal, both indicated in the image on his chest, a giant tag that reads, “Hello, My Name is Anthony”) — is unexpected, his experience at war is all too common. And it’s in exploring these experiences that Tattooed Under Fire shows another side, expanding its view from the tattoo stories per se to the effects of war. During his 15 months in Iraq, Anthony says, he “went from working in an aid station to working out on the front line.” For the last, he was with a unit patrolling the outskirts of Baghdad, a “unit that’s killing people,” not exactly what he signed up for. With one of his tattoos, he explains, he means to remember two fellow medics who were killed. It wasn’t “like in the movies.” As his friend bled out, Anthony remembers, “He said he wished he had made it home to see his newborn daughter.”

Listening to this story, you realize that every one of Anthony’s many tattoos likely has a similarly deep background. It’s daunting, even to imagine what he’s seen or done. Another medic, Travis, recalls his decision to join up, following three years of nursing school, interrupted by lack of money, then a series of dead end jobs. “I wasn’t really going nowhere in life,” he says, before he was presented with a choice, jail (for a drug offense) or war. None of this precisely explains the tattoo he’s getting this day, a fetus in a jar of red fluid, though you can see how he might come to his conclusion: “We really don’t know what we’re in for.”

This idea of an uncertain future affects most of the soldiers here, whether looking back on their recent service or forward to a first or next tour. Their efforts to gain control take various forms. Marri says she gets tattoos during the “most painful times of my life,” as her mother faced cancer and MS. “With this,” she says, grimacing as the artist works on her back, “You’re choosing something for yourself. You’re not feeling someone else’s pain, you’re feeling your pain.” Latoya comes in for some work after coming back. “It was horrible,” she says flat-out. “I never want to go back again. Regardless of me being stop-loss, I would find a way to get out.” She describes the hypocrisy of U.S. policies, selling weapons to bad actors, “then we fight them to take it back.” Charles says his tattoo (a picture of a rat on its back, captioned, “Rats get fat while good soldiers die”) is testimony to what he saw in Iraq, involving especially “civilian companies like KBR.”

Such stories suggest why troops feel in need of “magic.” Even when they come home, many feel caught. The film’s inclusion of another sort of commemoration, namely, makeshift roadside memorials to victims of car accidents, speaks to the ongoing pain of war, carried by soldiers who self-medicate, suffer from PTSD, or otherwise respond to traumas. For all the pride and hard work represented by Killeen and Fort Hood, Roxanne observes the predicaments they represent as well. “This town is built on war energy, all these people going to fight wars,” she says, “And you have to make your peace with it.” She sighs. However damaging memories may be, remaking them as art may help some soldiers find “freedom.”

RATING 8 / 10