New art exhibit showcases veteran's tattoos

The exhibit at Eastern Illinois University offers a unique view of military life

Jake Hughes
February 06, 2018 - 10:32 am

(Image Courtesy of Dreamstime)


Veterans and tattoos go way back. From the Roman tattoos of "SPQR" to modern day art, vets have been getting ink for thousands of years. For some, it's a way of remembering a pivotal time in one's life. For others, it serves as a way to honor a fallen comrade. For many, superstition and tradition played a role in motivating U.S. troops to get tattoos. Certain symbols represented the location a sailor had been— dragons for Asia, hula girls for Hawaii, a fully rigged ship for Cape Horn. Others symbolized a sailor’s job or experience —a swallow for every 5,000 miles sailed, an anchor for a boatswain or chief. Some sailors believed tattooing a pig and a rooster on the arches of each foot would prevent them from drowning. Whatever the reason, there is a rich history of the military and skin art, and one Illinois university is showing off the ink.

The Eastern Illinois University is opening its new art gallery dedicated to military tattoos, called "Designs of Duty." The exhibit, which opened on January 22nd, tells the story of seven veterans who have served this country over a 45 year period. The tattoos range from the obvious markings, like unit patches and ribbon racks, to more artistic symbols, like a squid or stylized flag. The seven veterans are all from Illinois. A press release from the exhibit says, "Pride, patriotism and honor are common themes in the artwork chosen by the veterans showcased in “Designs of Duty.”

The exhibit also features various flags used in battles, called "Symbols of Service."  It includes aircraft nose artwork form World War II, Vietnam helmet graffiti, and even literature and poetry written by service members while deployed. The exhibit will be open until May 11th, and is free and open to the public. For more information, visit