'I wanted to turn myself into a walking memorial': the art of military tattoos

A touring exhibition of military body art reveals extraordinary tales of life, death and remembrance

Leading Diver Michael Bell (29), Fleet Diving Unit, Royal Navy
Ink-spiration: Royal Navy Leading Diver Michael Bell (29) has 'Bomb Frog' tattooed on his knuckles Credit:  Charlie Clift

The official seal of approval to the practice of military tattoos was first given by Field Marshal Frederick Roberts at the end of the 19th century. “Every officer in the British Army should be tattooed with his regimental crest,” he said. “Not only does it demonstrate esprit de corps, but assists in the identification of casualties.”

In Britain at that time, tattoos were almost exclusively the preserve of the military (an exception was the future Edward VII who, on a visit to the Holy Land in 1862, had a Jerusalem cross inked on to his arm). Now, the National Army Museum in Chelsea is the first stop for Tribute Ink, a touring exhibition curated by the Royal British Legion that seeks to celebrate the history of military tattoos. Captured in a series of intimate, atmospheric photographs by Charlie Clift, the tattoos tell stories of long lives and swift deaths, of great bravery, loss and the urge to remember. We find in these photographs an extraordinary patchwork record of military history, inked on to human skin.

Paul Glazebrook, 35, whose photograph is one of the most striking in the exhibition, served for eight years in the Royal Green Jackets. Now he lives in Cornwall, where, as a surfer, his back is subjected to a deal of scrutiny during the holiday season. “People will come up to me and ask if they’re my friends on my back,” he says. “I’ll tell them and laugh about the lads, and tell them about them, about what they were like. I’ll always fondly remember the lads, what they were like in their prime.”

Glazebrook’s back is inscribed with the famous lines from ‘For the Fallen’ by Laurence Binyon. Above the poem is a pair of cupped hands and six dog tags, each of which bears the name of a friend or colleague who did not come back from the war. Five of the names are from Glazebrook’s time in Iraq. He is used to speaking about his friends, but this doesn’t stop his voice catching as he lists them.

“Each and every one of them was different,” he says. “Jez Brookes was one of the first guys that I was really close to to be killed out in Iraq. Then John Rigby; he was a really good guy. His death hit us really hard. It was a bit of a turning point for a lot of us on the tour. Major [Paul] Harding was a huge, huge inspirational figure for all of us in the regiment. He was one of the most highly decorated soldiers in the British Army at the time of his death. Eddie Vakabua, he died in a friendly fire incident. He was sleeping in his bed and was shot by someone messing about with a sniper rifle. It was so sad, just such a meaningless death. Then Wil [Rod Wilson], who passed away as well trying to save one of my best best mates in a firefight. My mate was a casualty and Wil was killed trying to pull him out.”

A quotation from 'For the Fallen' is tattooed on Paul Glazebrook's back  Credit: Charlie Clift

The last name on his back is that of Tom Keogh, who left the forces with Glazebrook in 2008. The two men got jobs working alongside one another in the private security industry in London, but were then made redundant. While Glazebrook found another job, Keogh didn’t. He re-enlisted and was killed shortly afterwards in Afghanistan. “I carried the burden of his death with me for a long time,” Glazebrook says. “Tom was the catalyst for me getting this tattoo. I just wanted to pay tribute to these amazing blokes by getting their names inked on my back.”

Each of the individuals photographed tells his or her own, very personal story, drawn from across the three services, something that Emma Mawdsley, curator and head of collections at the National Army Museum, believes is central to the success of the exhibition. “If you bring it down to the level of the individual soldier, people understand that so much more than battles and tactics,” she says. So we see Johnson Beharry, who is so weighed down by emotion that he has only worn his Victoria Cross three times in his life – when he was awarded it by the Queen, when he met Harry Patch, the late First World War veteran, and on his wedding day – and yet has the medal tattooed across his back. We meet L/Cpl Josh Pickman, whose tattoos of the Essex Regiment Cap reflect the service of his great-great grandparents in the Second World War. There are serving personnel such as Dani Cummings, a leading hand in the Royal Navy, and wonderful shots of veterans including Chelsea Pensioners. “It completes the story for us to have the Pensioners there,” Mawdsley says.

Dave Godwin, a 67-year-old Chelsea Pensioner who served for 25 years in the Royal Military Police, is the youngest resident at the Royal Hospital and the only one with tattoo sleeves. Godwin got his first soon after joining up at the age of 16 – a small personal tribute to his parents (a popular subject for tattoos at the time) with hearts, which cost him half a crown. “The tattooist was called Sailor Jack and he used to go to Walton prison in Liverpool and tattoo the condemned men before they went to hang,” he says.

Dave Godwin, Ex-Royal Military Police, got his first tattoo aged 16 Credit: Matt Shelley, Deep/Royal Hospital Chelsea for The Royal British Legion

It was only in recent years, though, that Godwin decided to cover himself so thoroughly in ink, initially to cover up some older tattoos that had started to look shabby. He had a series of intricate Japanese flowers inscribed, one of which carried a particularly personal meaning. “My eldest daughter died and I had some of her ashes turned into a yellow flower of mourning tattoo. She’s with me now.”

Godwin also found himself inspired to commemorate the centenary of the First World War. He toured schools with a collection of memorabilia and had a tattoo of a soldier surrounded by poppies inked on to his leg. “I did that not to remember any particular individual but to remember all the soldiers who’ve made the greatest sacrifice,” he adds.

The exhibition illustrates how complex and conflicted is the act of remembrance. Emma Mawdsley points out that for many of the soldiers, this is “something that lives with them forever”.

“It’s not just pinning on a poppy in November. There’s a lot of survivor’s guilt there,” she adds.

It is striking that so many of the tattoos are inked on to the backs of those who served, as if they were somehow trying to put the memory behind them. The exhibition is not only a powerful reminder of the sorrow and loss of war, however, but a celebration of the deep bonds that form between those fighting alongside one another. These tattoos are tribal, primal, and often very beautiful. They carry a powerful message of comradeship and belonging.

Glazebrook says that his tattoo, which he had completed over seven hours in a single day, was driven by a sense of horror at the thought that his friends’ names might otherwise disappear.

“The thing is that if you go up to the National Memorial Arboretum you’ll see their names on the wall there, and if you happen to stumble through the cemetery where they’re buried you’ll see their names there, but otherwise they had their quick five seconds in the media and that’s it,” he says.

“I just wanted to turn myself into a walking memorial so people could see their names and read them.”

Tribute Ink is at the National Army Museum until April 17 and then touring. Entry is free. For more information please visit britishlegion.org.uk