Military tattooing, in the more western sense of memorial, however, made a big upsurge in popularity during our own Civil War. Although the 1862 engagement between history’s first two ironclad warships, the Monitor representing the Union and the Merrimack (rechristened the Virginia by the Confederacy) was essentially indecisive with both ships sailing away for repairs, both sides in the conflict claimed victory. False hopes were raised in the South that the Union blockade had been broken while observers in the North breathed a sigh of relief that it hadn’t. Emotions ran high and Naval tattoos commemorating the event began to make their way through the service, along with other more general tattoos. Gunners’ mates sometimes wore crossed cannons while boatswains wore anchors.
In the case of the Spanish-American War, tattoos actually preceded formal hostilities. Remember the U.S.S. Maine? Possibly not, since it was sunk in Havana Harbor at the outset of the Spanish-American War in 1898. A suspicious explosion sank the battleship suddenly, taking the lives of 260 sailors aboard her. Although Spain offered to have the matter investigated and submitted to arbitration, the cause of the disaster was never discovered. The slogan “Remember the Maine and to Hell with Spain” was coined and sailors of the era rushed in droves to have it tattooed on their chests before heading out to avenge her sinking. Already these types of tattoos had acquired the features which we recognize today – the curved scroll or banner with perhaps a slogan, name, or date; red, white, and blue bunting; the stars and stripes; a giant eagle as a backdrop. Even now, these are the quintessential features of many military and patriotic tattoos, easily recognized due precisely to their long traditional use.
Although distant in time and fading from memory, those early events and tattoos are a faint echo of the Gulf War tattoos of today or the “911” tattoos that became so popular around military bases nationwide in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks of 2001. Only fifty years ago, most servicemen simply made their tattoo choice based on flash (sample drawings of tattoos, typically arranged in posters on the walls) as they stood in a crowded tattoo studio and waited in line for their turn. Today, though, many different images and themes are melded by tattoo artists and custom designs are not uncommon: some Operation Iraqi Freedom designs have incorporated the name of a unit or individual; the Statue of Liberty is paired with an outline of Iraq; the single word “freedom” is done in the colors of the American flag. Entire military groups (men and women) are spontaneously acting in unity by getting the same tattoo before shipping out. And while the troops are deployed, the tattoo shops are not idle. Some receive a steady business from wives and other family members who are anxious to commemorate their patriotism and also their loved ones. However, of all the people who acquire patriotic tattoos, it is the people of the military who understand all too well the real risks associated with their profession. Tattoos placed on the underside of the arm (an area of the body which might escape damage from various types of assault) which record a serial number, blood type, or religious preference are a sobering reminder of those risks.
Military tattoos have likely taken an infinite number of forms in our collective past: from the horrific bluish-green of Caesar’s enemies or the black half-body of the Marquesan warriors to a simple scripted “U.S.A.F.”, a full-blown “Screaming Eagle”, the ever popular banner of “Death Before Dishonor”, or a well-muscled “Devil Dog” plus everything in between. While the modern military services are far from endorsing tattoos, each is faced with increasing numbers of members who are tattooed and even heavily tattooed as the popularity of tattoos in mainstream culture continues to rise. In fact, all branches of the service have recently revised their policies on what are considered appropriate images and placements for tattoos. Although never explicitly stated, such policies acknowledge the fact that the military and tattoos have a long tradition together. It is a tradition where personal history and military history become one and the same, captured in images and words in the skin. It is a tradition that has endured in many different forms and circumstances but with the fundamental experiences of building comradeship, creating identity with the group, and marking a transformation. Indeed, precisely for those reasons, it seems likely that the tradition of military tattooing is one which will not be ending any time soon.