Library showcases veteran tattoos in month-long display


Brian Bauer

Artifacts for the Symbols of Service exhibit sit in one of six display cases on the first floor of the Main Library. The gallery focuses on U.S. veterans and their tattoos, while also addressing other topics such as readjusting to civilian life after military service.

By Jessica Berbey, Staff Writer

Caleb Carlson is most proud of the sun and moon tattooed on his triceps. Although he has four tattoos, his dad has a sun and moon, too — except on the other arm.

“His are very different from mine, but it’s a way to say that we are parallel people because I am very much like my father.”  

Carlson greatly admires his dad. But even though their tattoos are similar, they are on their own paths.

Carlson is the secretary for Illini Veterans and a sophomore in business. Like many of his peers, tattoos are important to his service.

Carlson is one of many student-veterans participating in the University’s Main Library “Symbols of Service” exhibition, which showcases student-veteran’s tattoos and the stories behind them.

“Some people write books, some people get piercings. I get tattoos,” Carlson said.

The event took a year of planning and involved coordination with the University Library, the Center for Wounded Veterans and the Veteran Student Support Services.

“There is a rich history between tattoos and the military,” said Nicholas Osborne, director for the Center of Wounded Veterans. “They are great mediums for storytelling and for marking various points and transitions that take place in a person’s life.”

In addition to commemorating Veterans Day, the display focuses on educating the campus and community about military-connected students.

“Their tattoos and associated narratives provide insight into military culture and the diverse backgrounds of our students,” said Osborne. “It ultimately supports awareness and appreciation of their service.”

Brent Blackwell, president for Illini Veterans and junior in AHS, also expresses himself though tattoos.

A skeleton holding a microphone and a bottle, along with the words “Memento mori,” meaning “Remember that you have to die,” served as Blackwell’s first tattoo.

“The idea behind (the tattoo) is that everyone has a passion— something they love— so make sure you do it,” Blackwell said. “Don’t lose sight of what’s important to you, because we will inevitably die someday.”

Blackwell’s second tattoo is a more traditional one: a ship. Claiming it just felt like him and that the ship represents his journey.

He said that although he wasn’t in the navy, he served in the military for seven years. To him, the tattoo symbolizes constantly moving and looking for different opportunities.

Blackwell chose to participate in the display as a way to spread awareness about veterans. He said that many people have false preconceptions of what a veteran is and that he always tries to do what he can to inform the population.

“I want people to know that we are not all the same,” Blackwell said. “We are individuals. We have our own personal beliefs and traditions, just like the civilian population.”

Although it’s not necessarily a military tradition, most soldiers get tattoos, Blackwell and Carlson said.

Many soldiers choose to highlight their units of service through their tattoos.

“It’s just a way to show pride, a way to express yourself in a way that was kind of counterculture, even though it’s pretty mainstream now,” Carlson said.  

Katharine Pionke, assistant professor at University Library, assisted in implementing the display. She hoped to showcase the many groups the University Library serves on campus.

She said that her favorite part of the process was actually interviewing the students for the display.

“Being able to hear their stories of what their tattoos were of, why they got them, and the importance of it to them, was really rewarding for me and is reflective of the things that we do in the library,” Pionke said.

Osborne said that the veterans involved are really excited to be able to share this display with the campus and the community.

“The thing about tattoos that’s interesting is that people may not want to share certain stories but are willing to put art on their body, symbolizing those stories,” Osborne said.

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