Sunday, November 08, 2009

Fort Hood: Tattooed Under Fire

In the aftermath of Thursday’s tragic shooting, there might be a natural temptation to suddenly find new implications in any documentary about American soldiers, let alone those stationed at Fort Hood. Since the investigation is still underway, it is best to resist speculation and consider such a film separately. Still, while some of the Fort Hood soldiers profiled in Nancy Schiesari’s Tattooed Under Fire do indeed suffer from combat-related stress, the issues of the alleged shooter appear to be of an entirely different nature. In contrast, many of the fighting men and women she interviews seem perfectly healthy and well adjusted (but still understandably affected by their combat experiences).

They share one commonality though. The soldiers of Fort Hood estimate as many as ninety-five percent of their ranks get inked up to some extent before deploying to Iraq. Schiesari explores the significance of their tattooing ritual and many of their specific tats in Tattooed Under Fire (trailer here), which airs on PBS stations across the country starting this coming Monday (assuming it is not preempted in light of recent events).

Army regulations permit tattoos, as long as they are not visible when soldiers wear their dress uniforms. That still allows plenty of space, and some of River City Tattoo’s Army patrons are determined to use it all. Some make relatively conventional choices, like the names of family members and the like. Others opt for the morbid but practical “meat-tags:” dog-tags tattooed in strategic locations to help identify their bodies. Then there are more graphic works, like the shocking fetus in a blender.

For the enlisted soldiers of Fort Hood, the tattoo parlor appears to have replaced the traditional barber shop as a social gathering spot. As viewers hear, they often open up to their tattoo artists and each other while getting their tats freshened, telling some quite visceral stories of their Iraqi service.

Frankly, the surfeit of tattoo images in Tattooed is often kind of gross. However, rather than instilling a fresh new respect for tattoo art, Schiesari offers absorbing snapshots of soldiers before and after their tours in Iraq. Most have harrowing stories to tell, but as a group they resist generalization. Some are bitter or emotionally scarred, while others returned essentially in tact. However, the most intriguing figure is undoubtedly Travis Conques, the medic with the notorious fetus tattoo, who readily admits his Iraqi experiences greatly tempered his nihilism. Of the soldiers interviewed in Tattooed, he now sounds the most idealistic about the mission in Iraq.

Though Tattooed is relatively non-partisan, Schiesari seems to permit more skepticism than support for the war to creep into her interview segments, especially with the parlor staff. Still, she always treats the soldiers fairly and respectfully, capturing some riveting stories in the process. Clearly, she sympathizes with the soldiers, if not with their mission. She also notably dedicates the film to Louis Schiesari, MD, Army medic, WWII.

The River City Tattoo parlor comes across as an interesting sociological crossroads, where crew-cuts meet hardcore grunge. Ultimately, Tattooed brings a very human perspective to the Army clientele of the Texas tattoo salon. Each one is a specific individual who has their own story to tell, as did those who were senselessly murdered last Thursday. Let us hope their family and friends find strength and comfort in this trying time.

Tattooed’s PBS debut is scheduled for Monday night (10/9) on San Francisco’s KQED, airing locally on New York’s WNET this coming Wednesday (11/11) at 10:30 PM.

(Photo credit: Ave Bonar/ITVS)