• Steven Heller

Body Language

War Ink was borne from the minds of Chris Brown, a senior manager at Contra Costa County Library, and Jason Deitch, who is a US Army veteran, social researcher and veteran advocate. They wanted a way to recognize the sacrifices and services of veterans, and to create a bridge between the veteran and civilian communities. That kind of connection is an important step for veterans transitioning from military to civilian life. I asked Andy Pratt, executive creative director of Favorite Medium, which designed the website, to tell us: Why a site devoted to tattoos? “Tattoos are so ubiquitous in the military, and are becoming more mainstream in civilian culture, too,” he explained. “They’re also a great conversation starter, so they were a natural choice for creating this common ground.”

Who and what are involved in making this happen? There are so many passionate and talented people that helped bring this project to life; the credits read like a movie ending. Of course none of this was possible without all of the veterans, who bared their ink and stories. Some of the other key players are Johann Wolf for photography, Rebecca Murga for video, Favorite Medium for digital strategy, design and development, Karen Kraft for her executive guidance, and StoryCorps for the interviews.

When Jason and Chris met with Favorite Medium, they had hundreds of hours of research and thought, but the project had very little form. We had about four or five themes that became the spine of the experience. As the amazing photos, audio and video came in, we worked very closely with Jason and Chris to add structure and fidelity to those themes. It was a very iterative process.

What is the special significance of the tattoos? For veterans, tattoos are a way to express themselves in a culture that doesn’t provide many outlets for emotion. Every tattoo has deep significance. They all create a pin on a map, helping mark a journey. They are a way of sharing an experience where words often fail.

How do you intend to make war vet issues understandable to civilians? As a civilian, my associations of veterans are largely painted by the media. And as a result I get two extremes. Stories of suicide, of veterans that are broken and reports of how our infrastructure and services have failed them. Or I get the opposite: the feel good viral videos of veterans returning home to their loved ones. Since the media has only painted around the edges, it is easy to categorize the veteran experience into these stereotypes.

One of the main goals of War Ink was to paint that picture in the middle. We wanted to get past the stereotypes and offer a little bit of a window into the veterans’ lives. We want civilians to understand that a veteran’s ink can be a good, honest starting point to a meaningful conversation. I think that our role as civilians is to listen and treat vets as people, not as heroes or people looking for pity.

What has been the popular response? Throughout the development of the project there was an incredible amount of support, and that’s continued after launch. I’ve heard often: “Oh man, what a great idea!” So in many ways it feels like it could just be the beginning. All the veterans featured in the project are from California. If we could speak to people nationwide, there’d be many more stories to tell.

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