PEORIA — While protecting America and serving overseas, U.S. military personnel helped normalize a stigmatized custom:
Through the early decades of the 20th Century, tattoos were scorned by mainstream American society, according to speakers at "War Ink," a presentation Saturday at Peoria Public Library’s North Branch, 3001 W. Grand Parkway. Moreover, tattooed sleeves or all-over body art was consigned to performers in circus freak shows.
But as military personnel fought overseas, they would visit tattoo artists in countries where the handiwork was seen as an art form. Sometimes, they would get tats as reminder of a port of call; other times, they would chose a design of personal linking.
And as they returned home, their body art — slowly but eventually — helped tattoos gain societal acceptance, said Erik Scot, a tattoo artist at Sin in Skin, Inc. in Bartonville.
Further, Scot, a Marine Corps corporal who served in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, said tattoos can be cathartic. He sees this with shop visitors seeking to memorialize a loved one lost in combat. When doing those designs, his military service allows a special connection, he said.
"I invest myself in all of my tattoos," he said. "But with an 'in memory' tattoo, there's something I can add, something they probably wouldn't even think of."
At the invitation of Scot and other panelists, Ron Michel attended the presentation to exhibit his body art. Michel, 72, of Glasford served with the Army in Vietnam. When he arrived there in 1968, he became fast friends with two other soldiers. When his tour ended, he was the only one to return home.
As part of his decades-long healing from war-time experiences, he recently got two tattoos at Scot's shop. One graphically illustrates the message "PTSD," while the other depicts Jesus Christ overlooking a battlefield cross adorned with two dog tags.
"No matter your sorrow, your pain, your loneliness, Jesus feels it for you. Jesus is there," Michel said. "When you feel you're alone, you're not."
PHIL LUCIANO is a Journal Star columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com, facebook.com/philluciano and (309) 686-3155. Follow him on Twitter.com/LucianoPhil.