It has to do with the bracelet one of our Iraq veterans wears on his right wrist. You’ve probably seen one like it—a stainless steel cuff with name, rank, and date of death—if not in person, then perhaps in a televised presidential debate. And it has to do with an ill-advised tattoo, the kind of thing a guy might wish he could get removed except for what that removal would do to the memory of a dead friend.
I recently finished a piece with my partner in portraiture, sculptor Christopher Wagner, portraying a senior enlisted soldier who posed for us while playing his guitar. It’s one of ten two-media portraits of combat vets we aim to finish by the end of the year. Each portrait takes dozens of hours, and inevitably we get to talking about the vets’ experiences in Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq, in this case.
Two months and a number of beers into the process, we asked our guitar-playing Sergeant Major how his friend died. “Vehicular IED,” he replied.
I was adding the final touches to my painting of his shoulder, which sports a little tattoo, a green/black inky insect shape. “This is the kind of thing you do when you’re young, drunk, and enlisted in the Pacific,” he said as he watched me measure the tattoo for copying onto my canvas. “I just picked it out. I thought it was badass. At the time it looked like a scorpion.” After the inking, when he found out his tattoo was designed as the zodiac sign for Cancer, he decided he didn’t like it. He has no connection to Cancer and doesn’t have any wish to remember that particular drunk night on deployment. He’s not sure he knows anyone who was born a Cancer. (Chris and I weren’t able to offer a case for the value of zodiac tattoos. We couldn’t even remember which part of the year Cancer occupies.) Our guitarist said he would remove it in a heartbeat, but the thing is, the guy whose name and date of death is on his right wrist got the same tattoo that night.
As we put the finishing touches on our portraits, and our Sergeant Major looked at my rendering of his bad tattoo, he told us the story of his friend’s death. Years after getting the tattoos in the Pacific, our guitarist’s friend was driving a truck in Iraq with one other crew member, a fifty-year-old woman manning the truck’s gun who our Sergeant Major says shouldn’t have been there. She had been discharged from the service, ready to live the rest of her life as a civilian but was recalled to active duty from the IRR, the Individual Ready Reserve, a force of ex-soldiers who are normally supposed to do nothing with the Army except keep their information current in case they need to be mobilized for World War III. Our Sergeant Major said a small white car rammed their vehicle, tried and failed to set off the bomb inside, then before the IRR reservist could kill the car’s driver, he repeated the effort and succeeded in blowing both vehicles away.
Chris has etched both the bracelet and the tattoo into his sculpture with the eye for documentary detail we have practiced throughout these studio sessions. I can’t see the bracelet from where I chose to paint my half of our Sergeant Major’s portrait. But the tattoo is prominent. I kind of prefer it that way. To me it’s a portrait of the accidental symbolism of that tattoo, a reminder that under the right circumstances what we otherwise might regret can turn into our most precious mark.
“Between Here and There” is a two-media portrait project that I and Christopher Wagner will be brushing and carving into until we show the series in November at Good Gallery in Portland, Oregon. The series is funded through a generous grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council.