Tattoo Machines and Machine Guns: Inking Your Buddies in Combat

Most tattoo parlors do not feature live hand grenades and automatic weapons, but Joe Kintz’s first shop did. In 2006, when Kintz deployed to Habbaniyah, Iraq, as an explosive-ordnance-disposal technician with SEAL Team 5, he took his own tattoo kit with him and set up shop in a plywood-walled room filled with weapons and assault gear. Small ink bottles shared counter space with loaded magazines for handguns and rifles. “I probably did three tattoos a week there,” Kintz said. “Seemed like a good therapy session when you’re not out kicking in doors and shooting people.” His customers mainly were inked with SEAL Tridents, octopuses and platoon flags. “But it was 2006, so there was some tribal stuff, too, of course,” Kintz said with a laugh.

While what Kintz was doing was against military regulations, some officers he worked for came to him for tattoos between missions, so he didn’t get in any trouble. And though the space he worked in would be highly unconventional back in the United States, it was a scene that would not have been out of place for sailors a century before, except for it all taking place in the desert instead of on the decks of a warship.

Tattooing goes back thousands of years, but it gained notable popularity among British sailors following visits to Polynesia in the late 1700s. By the end of the century, according to the U.S. Navy’s History and Heritage Command in Washington, D.C., nearly a third of British sailors and a fifth of American sailors had at least one tattoo. Within the Navy, there were tattoos that indicated someone’s job on a ship or celebrated a particular accomplishment: Boatswain’s mates might get inked with crossed anchors, while gunner’s mates would go for crossed cannons, often on the backs of their hands between their thumbs and index fingers. Oceanic voyages of more than 5,000 miles might be commemorated with a swallow tattoo. And to protect against drowning, sailors were known to get a pig tattooed on the top of one foot and a chicken tattooed on the other. In days of old, the superstition went, when ships hauled pigs, chickens and other animals on deck in wooden crates, the animals could float off and safely wash ashore if the ship sank.

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There is also a long tradition of sailors’ tattooing each other while out to sea. While not often officially sanctioned on ships today, the practice does live on. In 1999, when Greg Crowell reported to the U.S.S. Oldendorf, a Spruance-class destroyer based in San Diego, he had already been tattooing his shipmates for years.

Crowell, a chief petty officer, arrived around the same time as the ship’s new commanding officer. Both were surfers, and while paddling out in the water together one day, the new captain asked Crowell about getting a tattoo. The captain readily agreed to let him bring his tattoo tools and ink aboard the ship, with the understanding that Crowell could only tattoo after working hours. To keep things clean and hygienic, the ship’s medical officer disposed of Crowell’s tattoo needle, and she sterilized machine parts for him in the medical department’s autoclave. “It was a very cool setup,” Crowell said. “As soon as I tattooed one person, the word got out and then I had everyone approaching me.”

When the ship deployed to the Middle East in the summer of 2000, Crowell inked about 60 members of the crew as they steamed from San Diego to the Persian Gulf and back. Before starting each one, he checked with the navigator to make sure the weather ahead had seas smooth enough for tattooing. “The Indian Ocean was usually a better spot to tattoo in,” Crowell said. “Fewer swells.”

By the end of the cruise, Crowell had tattooed his commanding officer, as well as the captain of another destroyer whose ship deployed with them. A shark for the former and the pig-and-chicken for the latter. “I got my mark on a lot of the people running around the Navy,” Crowell said.

Not everyone in uniform who wants to start tattooing gets the approval of their chain of command. Most have to operate underground, turning whatever work space they have into an improvised parlor. When Jesse Vargas got to Camp Leatherneck for his second deployment to Afghanistan in 2012, he found a computer with an internet connection and ordered a tattoo kit online. It arrived two weeks later through the military mail service, and he took it back to the tent where his scout-sniper platoon lived.

“My buddies were like, ‘Do you know how to do this?’” Vargas said. “And I was like, ‘No, but we’re going to learn.’” He started on himself, spending a little more than an hour inking a fist-size, tribal-style sun on the inside of his upper right thigh. Then he moved on to his platoon mates. Whenever the door to their tent opened while he was tattooing, Vargas and the others hid the equipment under their cots. “I guess we could’ve gotten court-martialed, but it was just the thrill of it,” Vargas said. “It’s the things that go on beside the war — ways to decompress on our end over there.” Vargas left the Marine Corps after that deployment and still inks clients at his Houston home.

When Kintz retired from the Navy as a senior chief petty officer in 2008, he moved to Sydney, Australia, his wife’s hometown, and started looking for work. He applied to the police and fire departments, and even the local bomb squad, but each rejected him. So he picked up the yellow pages and started calling every tattoo shop in town. Most, he said, were owned and run by members of local motorcycle gangs.

“They were cool with me because they knew what I did before,” Kintz said, which allowed him to stay out of the gang rivalries that often set tattoo artists in the area against each other. He eventually got a job managing one biker-owned shop and tattooed there on the side. Still, Kintz fielded threatening phone calls and opened letters promising violence from members of other gangs that escalated over time. He learned to brush them aside as just part of the business.

“We used to get letters mailed to us saying we’d get bombed,” Kintz said. “And one day somebody mailed us one for real.” The former E.O.D. technician put on latex gloves, checked it out and realized he was holding what appeared to be a viable package bomb. He called the police. After the bomb squad carried it off, two of the officers came back to get tattoos from Kintz.

“I can pick and choose my own clients now,” said Kintz, who has bookings weeks in advance at Whistler Street Tattoo, just off Manly Beach in Sydney. “I’ve got my own style — geometric designs and dot work with heavy black lines.”

He has one condition for his clients though: “No more tribal.”

John Ismay is a staff writer who covers armed conflict for The New York Times Magazine. He is based in Washington.

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