From foreground, sculptor Christopher Wagner works on a portrait of an Army veteran playing guitar, along with painter Paul X. Rutz. Their series, titled Between Here and There, will go on display at Good Gallery in Portland, Oregon, in November 2014.
Between Here and There: Our Guitarist Can’t Get Rid of His Bad Tattoo
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 the name, rank, and date of death—if not in person, then perhaps in a televised presidential debate [link: http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2008/09/bracelet-wars/]. 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 few 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. “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, doesn’t have any wish to remember that particular drunk, young night on deployment. He’s not even sure he knows anyone who was born a Cancer. (We couldn’t remember among the three of us when Cancer really is in the year.) 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 Sergeant Major’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 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 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, the man 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 what we otherwise might regret can turn into our most precious markers.