© Charlie Clift

Art

Watch British soldiers and veterans explain their tattoos and the stories behind them

The military and naval history of tattoos is a long and rich one. A new exhibition put together by The Royal British Legion, Tribute Ink, sees veterans and current servicemen and women document and explain the meanings behind their body art

What’s a tattoo without a story? There are few bigger commitments than printing an indelible record of your life (or someone else’s) on your own skin – and the thrill of permanence adds a frisson of danger to any tattoo (just think of Johnny Depp’s “Winona Forever” tatt, presciently modified to read “Wino Forever” when he broke up with Winona Ryder in the Nineties). Tattoos traditionally speak of loyalty and unbreakable bonds, which means they’ve long had an association with the military, and it’s Army, Navy and RAF designs that form the basis of a new exhibition curated by The Royal British Legion, the National Memorial Arboretum and the Ministry Of Defence. Entitled Military Ink, it focuses on men and women from a range of branches of the armed forces, of various regiments, ranks and ages, who have been shot by photographer (and GQ contributor) Charlie Clift.

Paul Glazebrook’s back piece commemorates six of the friends he lost in Iraq and Afghanistan. Five of them died in 2007 while serving with Glazebrook on Operation Telic 9 with the Royal Green Jackets. The sixth, Tom Keogh, was killed in 2010 while deployed in Afghanistan with the newly formed Rifles. Their names are inscribed as ID tags on Glazebrook’s back as a living memorial and sign that each will always have Glazebrook’s back, as he will always have theirs. Accompanying their names is an extract from Laurence Binyon’s For The Fallen, a poem from the First World War that has entered the liturgy of Remembrance across the Commonwealth

© Charlie Clift

One is Matt Tomlinson, a veteran who was awarded the Military Cross and the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross during his time in the Royal Marines, making him one of the most decorated Marines alive. Tomlinson has the names of fellow fallen soldiers killed on tours of duty listed in a stairway design that climbs from the base of his spine to his shoulder blades – 12 names under the headings “Iraq” and, lower, “Afghanistan”. “There are so many people who have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan that we know that I wouldn’t have been able to get everybody put on my back,” he says, describing his tattoos as “a living act of remembrance”.

Craig Daniell, who worked on a Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT) in Afghanistan, talks about how his tattoos helped him process what he had seen while evacuating people with “three, four limbs missing” and ultimately being injured himself. MERT, as the unit that rapidly responded to serious injuries in the field by helicopter, is one of the most high-pressure units in the Army and Daniell expands on how he didn’t initially have time to reflect on his experience, but now uses his tattoos as a prompt to address it, including when talking to others.

Other tattoos included in the exhibition range from poppies and rows of Commonwealth war graves on a man’s abdomen (“Lest We Forget” reads an inscription above) and Spitfires pirouetting through clouds of smoke to more traditional tribal designs, dragons and roaring tigers. Within the exhibition, which is structured around the four themes (“Rethinking Remembrance”, “Remembering The Fallen”, “A Badge Of Belonging” and “Marking The Memories”), life-sized replicas of specific tattoos have been re-created and transferred onto 3-D sculptures.

Johnson Beharry was awarded a Victoria Cross, the most prestigious medal awarded to members of the British military, in 2005 for two instances of extreme heroism when serving in Iraq. Beharry loaned his medal to the Imperial War Museum but got an image of it tattooed so that he could always carry it with him. It remembers the events in his career when he had to show extreme bravery and marks the pride he has in serving his country

© Charlie Clift

Clift was granted access to hangars on airbases, barrack blocks and assault courses across the UK and photographed many servicemen and women on location at work. Though the exhibition opens at the Arboretum in Staffordshire, it will tour the UK from January 2020.

Now read:

How two British surgeons took on the wounded soldier’s last taboo

All the best tattoos for men and the dos and don’ts of getting inked

Prince Harry on his work with wounded soldiers

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