Decoding Marine Ink

Aug 31 • COVER STORY, Decoding Ink2 Comments on Decoding Marine Ink

Homeward Bound: designed by artist from Gypsy Rose Tattoo Shop.

Stewed, screwed and totally tattooed isn’t the most graceful expression, but its originator, Sailor Jerry (or Norman Collins), is known as a sharp, gruff Pacific “sea dog” who is the most infamous tattoo artist to ink the men of our military for over 40 years. It is impossible to understand the culture that surrounds the military and the tattoo art form without Sailor Jerry. Today in Jacksonville, across the various tattoo shops in town, one can find countless options for nautical ink: chickens and pigs or WWII pin-ups with busting bosoms, and of course thousands of USMC designs.

Tattoo shops, much like the tattoo itself, a staple to the military community and the lifestyle. As more and more men and women become stationed at Camp Lejeune, Stone Bay and Cherry Point, the existence and purpose for the art form grows bigger and bigger. It leaves many wondering why the tattoo is so important to the marine.

My husband, an active duty marine, has four—with plans for more. Is there a code behind the tattoo? To answer, one doesn’t necessarily have to get stewed, screwed and then tattooed, but one must sail straight into the rocky waters of the USMC soul.

Death Before Dishonor: created by artist at Forbidden Tattoo & Piercing.

It goes without saying the classic EGA (Eagle Globe and Anchor) motivational (or moto) tattoo is a rite of passage when one is fresh out of boot camp. As marine veteran Cpl. Andrew Wale at Forbidden Tattoo and Piercing points out, it is a symbol which is earned. It cannot be bought and are only awarded to a chosen few.

As I strolled in and out of credible shops around town and interviewed marines, I found that the concept of getting tattooed in the military goes much deeper than an average civilian recognizes. For many in the Marine Corps, getting a tattoo represents the trials and tribulations endured during service and it offers them a way to speak out. It is their voice that goes beyond simply picking out a colorful picture that looks intimidating or fanciful on the skin. It is a way to describe the battles one has faced, the fears they are soon to confront and the sacrifices they have made without saying a single word.

“When marines get ink, it isn’t for nothing,” LCpl. Patrick R. Stanborough explains. “They are badges of where we have been, what we have done and what we stand for.”

A veteran of Ramadi Iraq in 2006 through ‘07 and the Helmand province Afghanistan for most of 2008, Stanborough believes the most sacred of the marine tattoo is the display, which remembers brothers who didn’t make it back home.

“Marines are supposed to be quiet professionals, and to some extent we are,” he says. “But we are proud of what we do, and we are not afraid to let others know exactly who we are.”

Representing strength, religion, honor, pride or anger seems to be just grazing the crux of the subject. Further into territory not often spoken of is the military belief of enshrining their inner feelings, dreams, accomplishments and, most importantly, their pain. The skin art becomes a memorial forever, not only for the marine but for the artist themselves, too. The images they place on service members shine long after the lights shut off in the shop. This symbiotic relationship is comparable to the dependable bartender around the corner, serving drinks and lending an unprejudiced helpful ear.

In a time where seeking help for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is just barely breaking the cuffs of being taboo, the tattoo shops often provide a sense of comfort and enthusiasm for those facing their first deployment or pumping out for their third and fourth tour.

“A marine will not come in and just open up,” Gregg Stout, owner of House of Pain, explains. “It’s not what you see on TV, but when they come in and discuss the image they want on their body, they share bits about their life. We have a responsibility to them to get the details right, to listen and to respect them. It’s all part of understanding what they go through and the message behind their tattoo.”

This bond and responsibility may also be the motivating factor that drives many active duty marines and veterans alike to stay in the Jacksonville area long past their end-of-active-service (EAS) date and get their permit to tattoo. Perhaps, it is also safe to say by doing so they are perpetuating the brotherhood. For LCpl. William Joshua Ashbury, also a permitted artist, to decode a marine tattoo is to recognize a greater expectation of self—respecting tradition and enjoying an experience of loyal camaraderie.

“My brother was a marine in ‘96 to ‘01, and all his buddies in the Marine Corps were tattooed,” Ashbury shares. “When I picture a marine, I picture a scary individual who’s intimidating. Having tattoos is something I always picture myself having, because I am a marine. It can be as simple as four-letter words (USMC), or it can be more in depth. Everyone has their own form of motivation. It’s not necessarily about plastering USMC all over your body. It’s about coming in with your buddy, your brother, talking some bullshit, and getting over the physical or mental pain we’ve experienced—or that we wait to experience together.”

Ashbury’s comment can be taken to heart with family, too—a la the sacrifices marine wives endure and experiences they bear as the silent ranks. The day I, a military wife, chose to get my own tattoo, my husband was away for training for three months. I wanted a reminder of the happiest day of my life: my wedding. When my ink dried, Bit Lavendar at Unique Ink pointed out to me, “Memories fade but powerful (well taken care of) tattoos serve to remind us how far apart we may be.”

His comment has stuck with me since, because if this is true, do others in the silent ranks feel the same way? Do they, too, have their own code behind getting a tattoo especially if the memory of overcoming an adverse deployment eventually dwindles?

Last Saturday while visiting Gypsy Rose Tattoo Shop, the answer resounded yes! For one spouse who bore last spring’s tornado tragedy in Onslow County on her own, as her husband fought overseas, she found her strength to carry on by inscribing the words on her body, “Life is tough, but I’m tougher.” Unable to reveal her nameor comment further about the hardships she’s faced or is facing, one thing is for certain, she left the shop with more hope inside than when she originally entered.

My Brother’s Keeper: designed by artist from Alien Art.

So, is there a code behind the marine tattoo? The most eye-opening perspective comes from Cpl. John Barhunder.
As he sat in the black leather chair, needle tapping a grim reaper repetitively into his skin, he was steadying himself for his first deployment. “It doesn’t matter if others find it meaningful or worth decoding, what matters is if that the marine who has the tattoo finds it helps him, motivates him or makes him happy.”

Truly decrypting the tattoo matters not; the motivation behind is the heart of the matter. Of course, any tattoo for many seems to invite questions: “What does this mean?” Somehow, it’s equally important to remember many times the art work is representative of something far more personal.

Whether service members or not, some people just don’t want to talk about their tattoos. It is for them—and them alone.

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2 Responses to Decoding Marine Ink

  1. Jon says:

    Thank you and very well written. Shared this with my marine nephew (boot-camp on 9/11, 21st B’day staging in Kuwait, then Fallujah). That last tat got to him.

  2. Tiffanie Gabrielse says:

    Thank you so much for your compliment. It means a lot coming from you–an obviously proud USMC Uncle =)
    It really was an emotional learning experience and I admit there were many times the water works poured out while writing. Please, PLEASE tell your nephew WE THANK HIM for all he does and all he may continue to do for our country. We’d LOVE to hear from him! What tats does he have or does he plan to have?
    Sempfer Fi!

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