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War Ink: Veterans, Tattoos, and Public Libraries

by on February 17, 2015

Public libraries encourage storytelling. So when we hear that a public library launced an online exhibiti of war memorial tattoo art, should we be surprised?

War Ink is an extraordinary and moving online experience presented by Contra Costa County Library (CA). The exhibit, created by Contra Costa County Library manager Chris Brown, together with Jason Deitch, expert and scholar in the combat veterans’ post military experience, brought together veterans from nearly every county in California, to describe, display and record their war memorial body art.

Check out the trailer for War Ink:

The finished project, body art and narratives, came together on Veterans Day 2014 in a finely conceptualized and equally masterful documentary-art experience, entitled War Ink. The public library exhibit, entirely online, was made possible by the support of partners who joined the vision shared by its co-creators to make possible the veterans’ war experience through the stories told in tattoos. Funders for War Ink included The Institute of Museum and Library Services, Pacific Library Partnership, and Cal Humanities. Support was also given in a variety of ways from Eureka! Leadership Institute, StoryCorps, along with generous businesses, and dedicated individuals.

War Ink provides an online storytelling platform for all veterans, their families, friends, and anyone who is interested in understanding the experience of war and its lifelong impact on returning veterans to all of our communities. Through documentary photos, personal and poignant stories told by veterans returning from war, War Ink visitors begin to understand why war experiences were documented as a permanent reminder to wear throughout a lifetime.

After your visit to War Ink you’ll understand why over twenty public libraries partnered to provide access to the exhibit for their public library communities. Veterans were contacted by both Chris and Jason after calls for entries were made in counties throughout California. This was accomplished by searching for veterans’ participation through online queries, sought from men and women veterans from all branches of the US military.  Veterans responded to the call and were selected on their unique story and the way in which their tattoos memorialized their unique experience. The exhibit required the participation of library leaders, veterans, partners and many others interested in supporting telling the veteran story.

This collaboration helped patrons spark an overdue dialog, truly hear veterans’ stories, and begin to understand how painful it is to return home with all of the war stories held inside. Visit War Ink About to experience a poignant and intimate glimpse into how War Ink’s production affected each veteran’s life.

The success of the project—and perhaps what makes the exhibit so visually moving—is the juxtaposition of the armor-clad warrior toughened by war with the vulnerable and intimate images displayed on their exposed skin. Veteran participants report that War Ink opened the door to tell their story, which was so impactful that they memorialize it on their body for a lifetime. Their stories surprised and touched both online visitors and those who are closest to them. But for everyone who visits War Ink, the stories delivered by this unique medium will bring a new awareness of the veteran experience. Patrons will be drawn in by the revealing portraits of war told by the men and women who survived and want to share their story with an audience.

War Ink unfolds their experiences in four touching chapters: We Were You; Changed Forever; Living Scars; and Living Not Surviving. Men and women recount the pain and loss of combat, how it changed their entire world, and describe the self-actualization that returning home often brings.

War Ink has been covered nationally and internationally by news media including Newsweek, Inked Magazine, PBS News Hour¸Veterans Today and continues to draw attention as a result of newspaper, radio and television coverage.

The Creators of War Ink

Chris Brown is the project director, grant writer, and co-curator for War Ink, and has the ability to create community by leading momentum for library projects that are relevant to peoples’ lives.

Jason Deitch is co-curator, a social researcher, and a veteran advocate. Chris and Jason recruited men and women veterans from every branch of the service by making calls, connecting with veterans’ centers and tattoo artists, and by driving up and down the state of California. Some meetings happened by chance and others by word of mouth. Chris feels that War Ink is a natural extension of public library service since libraries are in the story business, and veterans have stories to share as they re-enter civilian life.  Chris manages the Walnut Creek and Ygnacio Valley libraries at Contra Costa County Library.  His enthusiasm for the project and for making connections with grantors, partners, and dedicated community supporters created mounting momentum and strong supporters in and out of public libraries.

“…In an ideal world we would all recognize each other as rich and complex people, each deserving of respect and compassion.” –Chris Brown, Project Manager and co-curator, War Ink

“…Without shared understanding, the men and women who have served cannot come all the way home.” –Jason Deitch, co-curator, War Ink


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