Over the years I have served on several boards advocating for the arts and humanities, but I am particularly proud of recently joining the board of California Humanities, the state's partner for the National Endowment for the Humanities. I am especially proud of our winning a 2015 Schwartz Prize from the Federation of State Humanities Councils in St. Louis for the project WAR INK.
"War Ink" by California Humanities: A grantee-initiated library project that used veterans' tattoos as a vehicle for veterans to share their experiences with war and homecoming to an interested public. The stories were captured in an online interpretive exhibit. The program has received more than 50,000 visits, generated extensive media coverage, and garnered awards and recognition from the library, media, and design communities. This program blends contemporary cultural issues and technologies with traditional humanities practices of listening, reflection, and dialogue. The 2015 judges were impressed with the program's originality and creativity. Read more about the program here.
The project opened a year ago, November 11, 2014. I would like to invite you to visit the project online this Veterans Day so that you can listen to the experiences of soldiers returned from Afghanistan and Iraq as they interpret the importance of the images they have chosen to have inscribed on their flesh.
Tattoos have captured the imaginations of societies for centuries. Here at CSU Bakersfield, we have our own tattoo expert, Dr. Charles MacQuarrie, Professor of English, who has published extensively on the significance of Celtic tattoos, especially their importance in the Middle Ages, not only as a way of marking slaves and criminals, but also as a demonstration of religious devotion (stigmata).
"Tattoos among the Celts might have been incidental at first -the result of bluing a scar after woad was rubbed into a wound as a disinfectant. I do like the idea of warrior tattoos from the early Scythian warrior to the present days being analogous to battle scars.
Usually tattoos in the early sources are associated with savages, warriors, criminals, and slaves. But according to Claudian in the 4th century AD and Herodianin the late 2nd century AD, tattoos on Celtic warriors indicated high status. In the modern military, though this may be changing, tattoos were more common among enlisted men than officers, an inverse proportion rule between tattoos and rank, but among certain Celtic tribes (and other populations such as Scythians) tattoos may have served a similar role to bars and stars on a uniform.
In the Hiberno-Latin Life of Saint Bridget, the saint seems to remove the tattoos of warriors/brigands who have stigmatized their foreheads in order to reintegrate them into society. The tattoo was the stain that needed to be removed so they could readjust, forget, and be accepted. The tattoos featured in WAR INK seem designed to do the opposite: to help veterans reintegrate and to memorialize their experiences of war." -Charles MacQuarrie
Tattoos can identify us, or help us to create an identity.
You may know the current hit TV series Blindspot, a mystery about a woman who climbs out of a bag in Times Square with brand new tattoos that have to be deciphered to discover who she is. In Gustave Flaubert's telling of the Temptation of Saint Anthony, the saint is tempted by a seductive Queen of Sheba, whose body is tattooed with all the knowledge of the world, and he only has to embrace her to own it. And in Peter Greenaway's cinematic recreation of Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book, a woman becomes the text of her life.
In WAR INK, the defense of the humanities comes together with the defense of our country.
Here's how the directors of WAR INK, Chris Brown and Jason Deitch, describe the significance of the humanities in an interview:
Why do the humanities matter?
All of us have to make sense of our lives. One of the ways we do that is by creating stories. Stories help us process our experiences. They allow us to gain insight into ourselves. One of the things we've heard from the participants is that sharing their stories has given them clarity and helped them come to terms with their service experiences. For some, it's meant they can now step outside the darkness that occupied their lives and see that life after war is possible.
The story of Victoria Lord, a Navy veteran from Iraq,
is especially poignant as she tells how she found the
only real family of her life in the Navy.
Writers have long explored the mysteries of tattoos, from Herman Melville to Lemony Snicket. Ray Bradbury wrote about the Illustrated Man, and John Hawkes tells of a sailor's Second Skin. One of my favorites is a dark short story by the children's author, Roald Dahl. "Skin" tells about a down-and-out bohemian whose back, covered with a tattoo by the artist Chaim Soutine, becomes the latest "found" painting by the famous painter, although the owner himself (other than his skin) cannot be found.
The power of the stories included in WAR INK is that they are not fiction. The stories we tell are not just for entertainment; often they are essential to our survival. Our most profound experiences must be told through pictures and words even when these representations are not adequate to the experience.
At the end of the WAR INK project, a section describes "Your Role." In meeting the men and women in the exhibit and by extension all the men and women who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, what can we do?
In the words of WAR INK participant, Mike Ergo: "Put your preconceived notions on hold and just talk like they're a person. They will be forgiving as long as you come across like someone who is okay with listening, really listening, not the 'I'm waiting for my turn to talk' listening, but active listening."
If the humanities can only teach us to listen to each other, what a priceless gift.
Photo credit: Johann Wolf
Dr. Robert Frakes
Dean of the School of Arts & Humanities