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Tribute Ink Exhibition

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by Tony Collins (subscribe)
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History of tattoos among the military told in new exhibition
Tattoos have been a feature on people's bodies for thousands of years, and still remain popular today as indicated by various modern television programmes dedicated to the body art. But a new exhibition in Staffordshire is looking at the specific connection between members of the military and tattoos. Entitled Tribute Ink, the photographic exhibition is running at the National Memorial Arbortetum at Alrewas, near Lichfield, until Sunday 1 December. The Royal British Legion, together with the Arboretum and photographer Charlie Clift, has worked with the Royal Navy, British Army and Royal Air Force to uncover how tattooing remains an emotional and meaningful act of Remembrance alive in the Armed Forces today.

Tribute Ink, National Memorial Exhibition
Tribute Ink exhibition at the National Memorial Exhibition


Tribute Ink, which is free to enter as part of a general visit to the National Memorial Arboretum, features photographic portraits, sculptures, and first-hand testimonies of Armed Forces personnel with their own personal stories of their tattoos. It also explores how tattoo art has become an important part of the Armed Forces community, and will tell some of the fascinating stories hidden in military tattoos. One of those with a personal story to tell is former Royal Green Jackets serviceman Paul Glazebrook whose tattoo is displayed on a sculpture at the entrance to the exhibition, which has been running since September 13. His tattoo commemorates six of the friends he lost in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their names are inscribed as ID tags on his back as a living memorial and sign that each will have Glazebrook's back, as he will always have theirs. Also on his back is an extract from Robert Laurence Binyon's First World War poem 'For The Fallen' that has become a key part of Remembrance to this day.

Tribute Ink, National Memorial Exhibition
The tattoo on the back of ex-soldier Paul Glazebrook


A historical timeline of the art of tattooing reveals that tattoos have been inscribed on the skin of warriors for thousands of years. Tribes have long been decorating their bodies as a sign of belonging. Iron age warriors painted their bodies with blue dye and Roman soldiers often got tattoos, while some Viking warriors are said to have been covered in tattoos from the tips of their fingers to their necks. Tattoos have been a major part of modern British military life since the 1700s. When explorer Captain James Cook returned from his first voyage to Tahiti he brought back tales of tattooing. Although tattoos had been seen in Britain before this, Cook's experiences increased people's interest of the art, while many of his sailors got tattoos to commemorate where they had been.

Tribute Ink, National Memorial Exhibition
Some of the photos are depicted as full size portraits


This tradition of tattoos within the Armed Forces has continued throughout the centuries, with the help of a boost or two along the way. In the 19th and early 20th century, many people were inspired to get tattoos when King Edward Vll and the future King George V each got one abroad. Following this trend, Field Marshall Frederick Roberts said that every officer in the British Army should be tattooed with his regimental crest. When soldiers, sailors and airmen returned home from the First World War, many of them got tattoos as an act of Remembrance, recalling their service or lost comrades. Tattoos have continued to act as a visible badge of belonging through the Second World War and up to the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. All three branches of the Armed Forces have now relaxed the rules about tattoos, allowing people to be recruited even if they have visible tattoos on their hands and neck.

Tribute Ink, National Memorial Arboretum
Paul displays his tattoo in front of the Armed Forces Memorial, which bears the names of fallen servicemen and women since 1945


As the exhibition organisers point out, tattoos inked onto the skin of serving personnel, whether soldiers, sailors or airmen, are a symbol of belonging, a personal act of Remembrance and an illustration of significant rites of passage and operational tours. Tattoos act as a permanent badge of the wearer's experiences, triumphs and losses, and commemorate those who have sacrificed for their country.

Tribute Ink, National Memorial Arboretum
The exhibition is filled with personal stories behind the tattoos


Tribute Ink continues at the National Memorial Arboretum until December 1. Entry to the Arboretum is free but there is a 3 charge for parking. Donations are also welcome. For more information about the Arboretum, which is part of the Royal British Legion, please visi www.thenma.org.uk/ or call 01283 245100.
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Why? New exhibition explores tradition of tattoos within the military
When: 13 September to 1 December
Phone: 01283 245100
Where: National Memorial Arboretum, Croxall Road, Alrewas, Staffordshire DE13 7AR
Cost: Free, but 3 parking
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