Under the uniform: Indianapolis Art Center hosts an exhibit about military tattoos 

In honor of Veterans Day, IAC is showing the artwork that many soldiers wear every day

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Every day, Jeremy Barnes looks at the tattoo on his arm and is reminded of the time he spent serving in the military.

"My arm is a memorial ... a tribute ... a reminder ... a sense of pride for myself and everyone who served next to me ... who continue to serve or were lost serving," says Barnes, who served military time in Iraq. "The battle cross, or the interpretation of it, on my arm is more than a tattoo. It's more than art ... it's love. Love for my brothers and sisters and love for this great fucking country."

From November 12 until the end of the month, Barnes' tattoo and tale will be featured alongside many others in an Indianapolis Art Center exhibit called The Things They Brought Home: Military Tattoos.


In keeping with Spirit & Place's "Home" theme, The Things They Brought Home is exploring the concept of body as home through the lens of these tattoos, explains Indianapolis Art Center director of education and outreach Michelle Winkelman.

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"We're using the tattoos as a way to talk about the veterans' experiences with leaving home and coming back," says Winkelman. "We're also talking about the concept of the body as home, and tattoos as a way of showing your inside on the outside. So we're sort of bringing together the art form of tattooing, the theoretical concept of body as home and the really direct experience of veterans and their relationship with home in the exhibit." Tattoos from 14 different veterans will be featured in the exhibition, with the ages of these men ranging from mid- 20s to 70 years old.

In addition to having a picture taken of their tattoos, the Indianapolis Art Center asked the veterans to sit down and write out the stories that accompany the ink on their skin, teaming up with the Indiana Writers Center for help with this piece of the puzzle.

"When we were recruiting them, we were pretty transparent that we wanted them to share their stories with the public, so they had to be comfortable with that," says Winkelman. Through this collection process, a vast spectrum of stories began to surface.

"There's one guy who has a story about putting a tattoo on himself so that if he was going to be killed in combat and dismembered, that they could identify parts of his body because they were tattooed," Winkelman says. "But then, on the other end of the scale, you've got a story of a guy who got a tattoo on a whim, and he passed out in the middle of it because it was his first one."

Dan Helrigel and Jeff Jeffries were given the responsibility of photographing the tattoos for the exhibit. As one might expect, each piece of skin art varied in shade and size, which made it a little bit harder to fully capture the character of the art.

"To me, a tattoo is more impressive in person than it comes across in a photograph, and I think that's the case with a lot of photographic subjects," says Helrigel, photography and digital arts studio chair at the Indianapolis Art Center. "When we're trying to take some part of reality and then flatten it, shrink it and put it in this box, it takes away from some of the actual real life impact." Regardless, he was touched by several of the interactions he had with the veterans, who would occasionally open up about their tattoo stories.

"The thing I took away was really that I wanted to know more," says Helrigel. "There's so much more that we don't know that would be intriguing, amazing and sometimes heartbreaking to know."

This sentiment is one that Winkelman shares, especially considering she has no family members with military experience. She ultimately hopes that people will leave the gallery with a greater appreciation for the men and women that serve our country.

"These are guys that all have military experience, and they all have tattoos," she concludes. "But, within that, there's a huge range. So I hope that people are able to connect, but also to really see that there's a person behind the uniform."

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