In what appears to be a new trend, surviving combat soldiers are transforming their bodies into grave markers.

Soldiers who have returned from the Iraq war are memorializing their slain buddies with tattoos, sometimes covering an entire torso. The images serve to honor and remember the dead, but also mark the bearers’ trauma and loss.

Artist and Occidental College Assistant Professor of Art Mary Beth Heffernan took her camera to the tattoo parlors adjacent to the largest Marine base in the United States, Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in the Mojave desert in southeastern California, to document this trend. The ink reminders of fallen soldiers are embedded in the skin of living warriors who are, in most cases, about to return to the fight. The soldiers’ skin reveals its vulnerability in the immediate aftermath of the tattooing process, as well as sometimes showing the literal scars of war: In one of Heffernan’s images, a Marine's elaborately tattooed back is still marked with small shrapnel wounds obtained in the very attack that killed the men named in his tattoo.

Heffernan will be on hand at the opening of her exhibition, "The Soldier’s Skin: An Endless Edition," on Wednesday, Oct. 10 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Pasadena City College’s Art Gallery. Posters of her images will be offered free. The exhibit runs through Nov. 17.

Rather than exhibiting her photos as framed artworks, Heffernan will present what she calls an "endless edition": posters laid in sculptural stacks on the gallery floor, with an invitation for viewers to freely take copies. Gallery visitors will thus be asked to claim ownership of the images, and to contemplate what it means to "support the troops."

"The Soldier's Skin" will challenge viewers to confront the central political crisis of our time as it asks larger questions about mourning and nationalism. It will also serve as a resonant contribution to the 2007 Pasadena Art & Ideas Festival, which is organized around the theme of skin.

"The Soldier's Skin: An Endless Edition"

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