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Bay Area Project Helps Veterans Share War Stories Through Their Tattoos

WALNUT CREEK (KPIX 5) -- As communities hold parades and lay wreaths this Veterans' Day to honor men and women in uniform, some returning vets are taking off their shirts to reveal their war stories in the form of tattoos.

War Ink, an online art project, features 24 California veterans; most of whom have recently returned from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The project was conceived by Contra Costa County librarian Chris Brown and Jason Deitsch, a veteran and social researcher.  The two realized there might be a solution to the age old problem of combat veterans struggling to readjust to society.  They often hold it all inside. Isolation is common.

Unlike previous generations, the very stories these young veterans are often reluctant to talk about in public are evident on their bodies. War ink is common.

"These tattoos are a way of hearing their narrative and really honoring them," said Chris Brown, Senior Manager of the Contra Costa Library.

Through their war ink, the project creators figured, maybe veterans might begin to open up to the civilian public. And heal.

Zakariah Bass of Pittsburg has a tattoo that shows names of friends he lost in battle.  And also demons that he says represent his experiences.

"Supporting the troops, supporting the men and women who have given so much to this country is so much more than a bumper sticker on the back of a vehicle," said Bass.  "They have stories. Embrace them."

"You don't have to directly ask about the military experience," said Jose Cruz of the Los Altos Hills.  "You can say, 'Hey, that's a cool tattoo. What does that mean?'  And that opens up the book.  So if a veteran is willing, they're going to share their story."

Photographer Johann Wolf, a Los Angeles creative director, said he along with everyone else involved in the project, were proud to do the work pro bono.

"It really was beautiful and deeply moving," Wolf said.  "I actually cried several times a day during the project.  I was very, very touched by it."

Painted across the chest of Mike Ergo of Walnut Creek is the bloodiest battle of the Iraq war: Operation Phantom Fury in November, 2004. The worst memory of his life.

"It was a month I dreaded," he said.

But nowadays, Ergo celebrates November because last November is when his baby arrived. A photo in the War Ink exhibit shows him holding his baby against his chest tattoo.

"My daughter was born November 4th," Ergo said.  "And it went from an experience of death in November to an experience of brand new life.  And that picture of her against my tattoo just brought it full circle."

"A tatooo is a great way of showing that, yes, I carry that through my heart forever," Ergo said.  "And I also show it on my skin for the rest of my life."

The exhibit is available online at

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