Patriotic images of past wars. Religious icons. Fear of
dying. Memories of those lost. No matter their inspiration,
many U.S. servicemen and women use tattoos to remind themselves
of their time served.
As reporter Michael May of The Texas Observer noted in “The
Skins They Carried” (March 2008), there are four basic
types of military tattoos. Often chosen by those going off
to war are “vintage, gung-ho, Americana-style tattoos
perfected during the World War II era by Sailor Jerry, a
Honolulu-based tattoo artist whose stock images of eagles,
weapons, and pinup girls evoke a more innocent, patriotic
A second type is for those who wish to make their uniform permanent, May said. “Some
do this for practical reasons, tattooing dog tags complete with military ID and
Social Security numbers onto their torsos in case they become separated from
their heads during combat. These tattoos, called ‘meat tags,’ can
be elaborate,” May said.
The third most common military tattoos are those that portray religious iconography,
most often images of crosses, rosaries, and Jesus Christ. Tattoos in honor of
other religions and various denominations are also quite common.
The last of the four types is of recent origin, according to May, and “stands
as a reminder of the human cost of the Iraq war. All the tattoo shops in Killeen
[Texas] now do dozens of memorial tattoos each month.” The most common
of these, May said, is the iconic combination of boots, a machine gun, and a
Kevlar helmet. Such tattoos serve as a reminder of those lost in battle, and
are often accompanied by a fallen comrade’s name and dates of birth and
death. Recently the trio of gear stands alone, as many service members today
fear the loss of more friends in the future and wish to allow the memorial to
stand in recognition of all of those lost, past and future.
Timothy Goolsby, 22, a 3rd Class Aviation electricians mate in the U.S. Navy,
is happy with his decision to get a military-inspired tattoo. Modeled after the
Sailor Jerry style, a gray anchor swathed in golden ropes tipped with red and
blue accents adorns Goolsby’s right shoulder. Two red and blue stars sit
on each side of the anchor, and the phrase “Death Before Dishonor,” in
bold capital letters, underscores the illustration.
I wanted to get one [a tattoo] when I joined up,’ Goolsby said. “At
first I thought it was kind of cliché, but then I realized that the Navy
is like a really big fraternity slash sorority and the brotherhood is what holds
us together and makes us stronger,” he continued.
It represents a huge milestone in my life that I’ve passed with great friends
by my side,” he added.
The phrase “Death Before Dishonor” below the anchor attracts a lot
of attention from those seeing it for the first time. Goolsby said he often is
questioned on the phrase’s significance.
In the Navy, it’s all about upholding yourself as a professional, and that’s
actually one of our core values—honor, courage, and commitment—and
for me personally, I would much rather die than be dishonored.” He continued: “It’s
just something I strongly believe in, and I feel that many others in the Navy
and the military in general share the same values.”
Aviation Technician 2nd Class Anthony Danno, 24, has multiple reasons for the
four tattoos he bears on his arms and back, all of which he says represent significant
periods in his life—past, present, and future. Each of his tattoos falls
into the religious or memorial category; the most significant is the Celtic knot
on his left arm.
My godfather Ronnie was Irish and Italian, and when I went to boot camp we promised
each other we would get a tattoo on our arms. He died before I got out, so I
got a Celtic knot on my arm in his memory,” Danno said.
Danno also intends to get a tattoo of a wolf on his back.
A wolf sticks with its pack,” he said, “and Italians stick with their
Aviation Technician 3rd Class Rick Robillard, 25, also has a soft spot for Celtic
artwork. One of four tattoos, Robillard’s third depicts a Celtic symbol
above his right elbow in honor of his Irish heritage.
I intend on getting more tattoos in the future,” Robillard said, “starting
with a sleeve on my right arm of Celtic artwork.”
His others include a Chinese character that means “reality,” his
favorite band’s symbol (Breaking Benjamin) above his right thumb, and a
giant depiction of a pinup girl in a sailor’s hat that takes up the majority
of his back.
One of my friends drew the pinup for me while I was serving a tour in Iraq,” he
explained. “I thought it was so cool, I decided to get it to remind me
of the time I spent there and in the Navy, in general,” Robillard said.
The Sailor Jerry-style pinup girl has proven quite popular over the ages. Aviation
Mechanic 3rd Class Omar Lopez also “branded” himself in June 2008
with the familiar depiction as a tribute to his first enlistment in the Navy.
The damsel sits perched atop an anchor on his ribcage on his right side.
I figured since I’m in the Navy, I’d do an anchor and girl pinup-style
tattoo, but I took care to make it my own. She’s not your typical old-school
pinup girl,” he said.
On a scale of one to 10, Lopez rated his first and only tattoo as a nine on the
pain scale. Nevertheless, he intends to get another in the future, only this
time in honor of his heritage.
I am going to get a charra on the left side of my ribs,” he said, explaining
that “a charra is a Mexican girl with a sombrero and a traditional Mexican
dress. I want her wearing two bandoleers and holding two revolvers. All Mexican
Revolutionish!” he added.
Heritage is also a high priority for Aviation Technician 2nd Class Nathaniel
Rodriguez, 24. His first of six tattoos bears the image of a cross, anchor, and
his last name on his right arm. Rodriguez explained that it signifies his close
relationship with the military and God, and also serves to acknowledge the unpredictability
of the ocean and his hope that God will keep him safe, no matter the circumstance.
Rodriguez’s other tattoos include an octopus on his left shoulder, a swan
on his right calf for his favorite band (Sparta), and two nautical stars on his
stomach. His favorite, however, is his most recent addition: the Grim Reaper.
The image takes up his entire left shin and comes complete with three skulls
that sit at the Reaper’s feet, each bearing the letters “OIF” on
“It signifies the time that I spent in Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi
Freedom,” Rodriguez explained. “The things that happened out there
always kept us in check, emphasizing our uncertainty of whether or not we were
going to get out of there in one piece,” he added.
Though all of the sailors noted their satisfaction with their existing tattoos,
all said that they would not recommend “branding” themselves for
the military or for any other reason without just cause. As Goolsby noted:
I would not recommend any kind of body modification to anyone unless they are
100 percent aware of the permanence of a tattoo. They don’t go away. They’re