Indelible ink

Times Staff Writer

It's a canvas of sorts, one threaded through with blue veins, nasty bruises, an explosion of hatch-marks that, upon closer inspection, turn out to be scars. It's skin -- but that's just one layer of a story.

Laid over that, across the spread of a back, is an elaborate tattoo: A gun sunk into earth, a helmet resting on top, empty boots tossed alongside. Dog tags dangle from the sides, spelling out in bold uppercase "Never forget. " And lining the bottom of the image, the lower back, still red from the artist's needles, are 10 empty ammunition casings, with a roll call of surnames -- Martinez, Stevens, Watson . . . drifting out from the top, like spirits, or smoke.

It's easy to wince away from the rawness. But it engraves itself on your mind, especially when you learn that the tattoo is just one of many coming out of the tattoo parlors in Twentynine Palms, memorials to lost friends and family members often done before a second tour in Iraq or a third. Before he shipped out, Owen McNamara, the Marine with the "Never forget" on his back, had it inked around shrapnel from the blast that killed his 10 friends but somehow didn't kill him.

Artist Mary Beth Heffernan spent three months in Twentynine Palms photographing the Marines and their homages to the dead. She haunted tattoo parlors late-night, gaining the trust of various tattoo artists first and then the Marines who dashed in at the last minute, sometimes due to be deployed the next day -- who would be back in Iraq before their skin stopped weeping, before the ink was dry.

Oftentimes she shared closet-size spaces, or tiny cubicles set aside in larger rooms, at some points photographing with her knees butting up against the subject. "It was a very intense, physically close experience," she says, "like a cross between being in the exam room during a doctor's visit or a close moment between two friends." It was the quiet before the storm.

Heffernan says she steered her conversation away from hot-button topics, asking instead about family, where the Marines were from, how they knew their friends. The subject sometimes turned to the specifics of what they'd seen. "They really resent almost being pimped for information like that. I assumed that they maybe killed somebody in the act of duty. I assumed that they saw gruesome things."

Mostly, Heffernan says, her subjects were stoic, so she was particularly struck when, at the end of a particularly grueling tattoo session, McNamara burst into tears at his first glimpse of the image traced along his back. "The sessions [are] certainly a moment of reflection for them," Heffernan says.

McNamara says he'd begun thinking about the tattoo from the moment his friends were killed and did the design the next day. "I was close with all of them," he says. "I'd spent the previous 2 1/2 years, day in, day out, with them. The main reason I got it done was respect for what they did. I was close to not making it home. These were the ones that didn't."

A selection of Heffernan's photos -- 10 images of freshly etched memorial tattoos -- is collected in an exhibit, "The Soldier's Skin: An Endless Edition," currently on view at the Pasadena City College Art Gallery.

From simple to ornate, the tattoos -- a helmet atop a rifle, a necklace of dog tags -- pay tribute to fallen comrades from this war or wars past. Heffernan's work is an unexpected prism through which to view the "soldier's story." She wants viewers to slough off the layers of detachment that come from a steady barrage of war news and ultimately to confront discomfort.

And there it is -- all of it within arm's reach: The red, raw patches of distressed skin under ink, blood that mixes with the red and white of the Stars and Stripes, creating blunt, new narratives on skin. Making Heffernan's photolithographs that much more immediate is that the bulk of them are not displayed behind glass, nor do they hang on the wall. Copies of them lie, arranged in nearly 2-foot-tall stacks on the floor, and viewers are invited to take them. "The monument is like a skin that can be endlessly peeled off," Heffernan says.

Heffernan, an assistant professor of art, sculpture and photography, art history and visual arts at Occidental College, never saw her project as some sort of "war memorial," a term that suggests something static and removed. "Rather than universalizing" the experience of war, she says, "this is about the particular." She watches as students of various races, ages and levels of curiosity thread in and out the gallery. As they hover over shiny stacks, it's difficult not to make the association of mourners lingering over a casket.

"The Soldier's Skin" is the fruit of Heffernan's three-month tour of duty in Twentynine Palms. It started as a smaller project that she worked on for High Desert Test Sites, based in Joshua Tree, an annual arts festival with the objective of creating better understanding of the desert through site-specific artworks. But long before this project, Heffernan, a former military wife, had indelible memories of Twentynine Palms -- its culture, its juxtapositions. "I had been going out there as an artist for years, but I always felt a little odd when I went to Joshua Tree because I had another association with the high desert," Heffernan says. She had moved to California with her then-husband, a Navy flight surgeon who'd been sent to Twentynine Palms for combat maneuver training. It was Heffernan's first glimpse of the terrain.

"So when I went out in the desert, I not only had these art associations with Twentynine Palms but just over the hill was this haunting presence of Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center," she says. "I felt it was kind of a looming, ominous presence that had real effects in my early understanding of what the California landscape was about."

When Heffernan proposed this project, her idea was to make "site specific" work focused on the "site" of "the bodies of these young Marines coming back from the war. It would be an understanding of land but not disassociated with the people who use it" -- the military community, the tattoo artists, the desert inhabitants in general. "As I returned to the desert to witness how these young men were memorializing their dead brothers, as they call them, they bridged a gap in opening themselves to me."

Over three months, she broke down one barrier and then the next, and got to know the land and the people intimately. She pitched her tent in the desert because she couldn't afford to stay in a hotel for such a protracted period. "There were two blizzards while I was there! Snow on my tent," Heffernan says. But she knew being a constant presence was the only way that she could build rapport with the tattoo artists and ultimately the Marines.

In time, she was able to form close relationships with about 10 of the parlors and the artists who worked in them, on or just off California State Route 62 -- Twentynine Palms Highway. "They were the locus point," Heffernan explains. "Also, I didn't want to start with the military's office because I thought that that would be more a closed door," Heffernan says. "And the tattoo parlors were the middle ground where I actually wanted to photograph them."

Instead of using her usual setup, a 4-by-5 view camera, she decided on a small-format digital that would appear less intimidating.

Often she was struck by the quality of her subjects' silence. "I think they are really conscious of the fact that this was painful, but it was being offered up as a spiritual sacrifice in honor of a dead friend. So they saw it as a small sacrifice."

Marine Brandon Johnson had been carrying the idea in his head after about eight servicemen he'd known and been friends with were killed from 2003 to 2005. He'd taken a photo of a soldier's memorial -- the gun, helmet, boots. He sketched in a shadow of a cross. "People ask about it," Johnson says. Often he just gives a shorthand version. "A lot of people, really, they don't want details. You can tell." For him the tattoo's meaning is layered. "Just the memory of them. Just something I want to have for when I'm older."

Seeing her work reproduced larger than life, the skin's abrasions, the messages themselves, "put me in a place that caused discomfort," Heffernan says. And if those who view it shudder or squirm, she hopes that those reactions are somehow productive -- that they lead to empathy. In their stark way, as they move out into the world, she hopes that the images become their own irritants, provocations: "I've been interested in skin as an intensified site between self and other, between nature and culture," Heffernan says, "the place that culture writes itself upon. But when we see the welted skin or the tissue fluid oozing to the surface of the skin, there's the message: The body is almost writing back."

lynell.george@latimes.com

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'The Soldier's Skin: An Endless Edition'

Where: Pasadena City College Art Gallery, 1750 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena

When: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, noon to 4 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Closed Sundays.

Ends: Nov. 17

Price: Free

Contact: (626) 585-3285 or (626) 585-7238

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