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Indelible ink

A photography exhibit shows Marine tattoos as eulogies to the lost.

October 27, 2007|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

It's a canvas of sorts, one threaded through with blue veins, nasty bruises, an explosion of hatch-marks that, upon closer inspection, turn out to be scars. It's skin -- but that's just one layer of a story.

Laid over that, across the spread of a back, is an elaborate tattoo: A gun sunk into earth, a helmet resting on top, empty boots tossed alongside. Dog tags dangle from the sides, spelling out in bold uppercase "Never forget. " And lining the bottom of the image, the lower back, still red from the artist's needles, are 10 empty ammunition casings, with a roll call of surnames -- Martinez, Stevens, Watson . . . drifting out from the top, like spirits, or smoke.

It's easy to wince away from the rawness. But it engraves itself on your mind, especially when you learn that the tattoo is just one of many coming out of the tattoo parlors in Twentynine Palms, memorials to lost friends and family members often done before a second tour in Iraq or a third. Before he shipped out, Owen McNamara, the Marine with the "Never forget" on his back, had it inked around shrapnel from the blast that killed his 10 friends but somehow didn't kill him.

Artist Mary Beth Heffernan spent three months in Twentynine Palms photographing the Marines and their homages to the dead. She haunted tattoo parlors late-night, gaining the trust of various tattoo artists first and then the Marines who dashed in at the last minute, sometimes due to be deployed the next day -- who would be back in Iraq before their skin stopped weeping, before the ink was dry.

Oftentimes she shared closet-size spaces, or tiny cubicles set aside in larger rooms, at some points photographing with her knees butting up against the subject. "It was a very intense, physically close experience," she says, "like a cross between being in the exam room during a doctor's visit or a close moment between two friends." It was the quiet before the storm.

Heffernan says she steered her conversation away from hot-button topics, asking instead about family, where the Marines were from, how they knew their friends. The subject sometimes turned to the specifics of what they'd seen. "They really resent almost being pimped for information like that. I assumed that they maybe killed somebody in the act of duty. I assumed that they saw gruesome things."

Mostly, Heffernan says, her subjects were stoic, so she was particularly struck when, at the end of a particularly grueling tattoo session, McNamara burst into tears at his first glimpse of the image traced along his back. "The sessions [are] certainly a moment of reflection for them," Heffernan says.

McNamara says he'd begun thinking about the tattoo from the moment his friends were killed and did the design the next day. "I was close with all of them," he says. "I'd spent the previous 2 1/2 years, day in, day out, with them. The main reason I got it done was respect for what they did. I was close to not making it home. These were the ones that didn't."

A selection of Heffernan's photos -- 10 images of freshly etched memorial tattoos -- is collected in an exhibit, "The Soldier's Skin: An Endless Edition," currently on view at the Pasadena City College Art Gallery.

From simple to ornate, the tattoos -- a helmet atop a rifle, a necklace of dog tags -- pay tribute to fallen comrades from this war or wars past. Heffernan's work is an unexpected prism through which to view the "soldier's story." She wants viewers to slough off the layers of detachment that come from a steady barrage of war news and ultimately to confront discomfort.

And there it is -- all of it within arm's reach: The red, raw patches of distressed skin under ink, blood that mixes with the red and white of the Stars and Stripes, creating blunt, new narratives on skin. Making Heffernan's photolithographs that much more immediate is that the bulk of them are not displayed behind glass, nor do they hang on the wall. Copies of them lie, arranged in nearly 2-foot-tall stacks on the floor, and viewers are invited to take them. "The monument is like a skin that can be endlessly peeled off," Heffernan says.

Heffernan, an assistant professor of art, sculpture and photography, art history and visual arts at Occidental College, never saw her project as some sort of "war memorial," a term that suggests something static and removed. "Rather than universalizing" the experience of war, she says, "this is about the particular." She watches as students of various races, ages and levels of curiosity thread in and out the gallery. As they hover over shiny stacks, it's difficult not to make the association of mourners lingering over a casket.

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