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Tattooed Under Fire

Airs Wednesday, November 11 at 10:30 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: Travis Conques (left), a medic, with fellow soldiers Kit and Cody (both infantry).

In the heart of central Texas lies the city of Killeen—home to Fort Hood, America's largest military base. Across the street is River City Tattoo Parlor, a place where many of the war-bound and returning soldiers go under the needle. An estimated 95 percent of the U.S. military sport tattoos. For those joining the ranks at Ford Hood, a pilgrimage to the River City Tattoo Parlor is an essential rite of passage.

"Tattooed Under Fire," directed by Nancy Schiesari, centers on the military ritual of getting inked, interweaving the personal stories of six central characters—and their relationships to the war in Iraq—with the visual expressions of their tattoos. The film is an intimate, character-driven portrait of Iraq-bound and returning U.S. soldiers, professing their pride, sharing their secrets and confessing their fears as they go under the tattoo needle. What emerges is an evocative, poignant and highly personal look at the human and cultural cost of war.

Travis Conques, a medic, shows off his tattoo. Travis didn’t have many choices in life. For Travis, it was either the possibility to go to jail, or join the army and reform himself. Read more

Above: Travis Conques, a medic, shows off his tattoo. Travis didn’t have many choices in life. For Travis, it was either the possibility to go to jail, or join the army and reform himself. Read more

River City Tattoo Parlor owner/artist Roxanne Willis and her team of tattoo artists welcome young men and women daily: as they arrive, shed their uniforms and carve permanence into their transitory flesh. Some seek to adorn their limbs, make a statement, ward off evil with fierce engravings or honor a loved one. Some seek grizzlier images, like “meat tags.” A play on traditional dog tags, “meat tags” are a morbid marker of name, DOB and serial number, designed for posthumous identification. Tattooed just under the armpit on the torso, they are strategically located in the place most likely to remain intact in the event of death by IED explosion. The young men and women are introduced as they are being tattooed; raw recruits at first and then as returning soldiers, changed in ways only their fellow soldiers can grasp. Through the creative and sometimes subversive act of tattooing, these young soldiers use skin to create personalized images and words that reveal a seldom seen part of the psyche of the American soldier.

Watch an extended trailer, video extras and view the photo gallery.