Telling stories with ink Part One
The swarm of responders around the victims was a flurry of hands, medical equipment and bandages. Once again, the EMT’s were doing their job, saving yet another life on the stormy night that had already caused three other near-fatal accidents. While each technician knew and did their job with an almost robotic precision, one thing stood out in the flashing lights… each arm was decorated with tattoos of every size, color and shape.
It is pretty common now to see tattoos on responders, but this was not always the case. Until recently, most response agencies such as those providing emergency medical services or police departments had policies against tattoos on their officers and technicians. Even those that had returned from the military were forced to wear long sleeves or even bandage over the body art.
It feels like tattoos are everywhere these days, but they've actually been around for ages—so how did they become so popular?
Apparently tattoos have been around a while as the oldest human remains ever found had tattoos!
Today, slow and steady, social acceptance has helped the tattooing industry grow larger and larger. From the talent behind today's top tattooists to the ink and the tools that make their artwork possible, the sky is the limit for people who want their bodies to be a canvas.
Tattoos were considered “taboo” for many years, but that in itself is a cool story. Explorer James Cook is credited for the creation of both the word “taboo” and the word “tattoo”. Cook’s voyage around the world led him to the Tahitian and Polynesian islands where tattooing was openly practiced. Inscribing the language into his diary, he introduced both words to the English language after his travels in 1769.
The word "tattoo," specifically, has been used ever since to define a permanent mark made by either ingraining pigments or creating scars. In modern days, however, "scarification" is used for the latter instead of the word tattoo.
Even though we spent decades where tattoos were considered wrong, ugly or even considered mutilation, the fact is that there was a long part of history when it was the elites of society that got tattoos and even Winston Churchill had tattoos (so did his mother!).
Tattoos have an interesting history that would not normally fit in our museum except that in the last decade, tattoos have become more and more common amongst first responders and battles are raging whether or not they are appropriate for lifesavers.
During the Japanese Edo period, tattoos were used on criminals and prisoners, we know that Nazi Germany used tattoos to mark and keep track of Jewish prisoners and the Protestant concept of the body being a temple made tattoos a sin. In the 1950’s, disease was another reason to avoid getting inked and several states even banned tattoos for fear of the practice causing infections.
But alas, we come to the part where history always wins. Tattoos have a rich history no matter how you draw it and now we see public figures, celebrities, athletes and responders all sporting their own personal histories in ink; and that is what tattoos have become…historical artifacts of sort that tell stories that would otherwise never be told.
It may be the “In Remembrance” tattoo on the arm of one that has lost a child or best friend, it may be a date and vivid graphic commemorating an anniversary or a milestone. On my right forearm is a Hurricane Katrina tattoo that I had done in New Orleans at the National Tattoo Museum; a souvenir I will never lose.
For survivors and responders that took part in or were impacted by the September 11th attacks, there was no single way to cope, but thousands took to art and ink. My 9-11 tattoo is a special one and despite the current trends in our social and political climate, that tattoo never changes nor does my memory of that day. There is even an organization that recognized how therapeutic tattoos have become for first responders.
The Healing Ink Project, is an organization that helps survivors of terror and war manage the lingering wounds left from violence with tattoos. Many trauma survivors and responders see a tattoo as a symbol of their pain as well as their perseverance. Tattoos have become a way to permanently memorize victories and losses, names, dates and events. In essence, tattoos have become the new museums. The old stigma is almost gone and we no longer shy away from those sporting body art but rather tend to step up and ask our waitress “What does that mean?” knowing there is a story attached. No longer do we view the tattooed as the criminal, the biker or the one with shady moral character; in fact, tattoos have become conversation starters and ways for humankind to bond quickly as strangers recognizing similar stories and share openly the reason for the ink.
It is definitely so with responders. An EKG heartbeat with little baby footprints…a maltese cross and dalmatian... twin towers and the number 343… they all tell stories and nobody has more stories than responders.
As agencies are coming to grips with their tattooed response staffs, the pool of walking museums got a lot deeper in 2020. As it turns out, almost 30% of Americans now have at least one tattoo, but the fastest growing group of Americans were the frontline heroes of 2020 in the fight against COVID-19. It was this pandemic that caused the inspiration for a new walking, living and breathing exhibit we can see everyday and the art ranges from doctors to pandemic history (My son got a plague doctor tattoo in mid-2020, one of the most popular subjects inked last year), from toilet paper rolls to warrior nurses. I have gathered some from the internet and put them here on this article.