"The Vikings wore their shields on their backs when they went into battle, so it should be on the back," says Josh, 22, a soft-faced boy with wide eyes and still a bit of baby fat around his middle. It's April 2005, 1500 U.S. troops have died in Iraq, and Josh is deploying there in two months. In Nancy Schiesari's documentary "Tattooed Under Fire," Josh is explaining why the Viking shield tattoo he has worked to design with the artists at River City Tattoo in Killeen, Texas, incorporates the Norse "tree of life" into its design and will cover most of his back.
"I'm Norwegian on my mother's side, so as a warrior, this is another link to my heritage," he adds, his upper lip beaded with sweat as the needle bites into his back. I have a bit of ink, so I know this peculiar sensation. It doesn't exactly hurt, because the needle's never in one spot long enough, but it's always just about to, so you can reach your limit for a session.
Diamond Glen, the senior tattoo artist in the shop, is familiar with tattoo's rituals and lore. He elaborates that ancient warriors painted and tattooed themselves to intimidate the enemy, part and parcel with the fearsome pounding on shields and bellowing that we all know in movies from "Stagecoach" to "Braveheart" to Steve McQueen's "Hunger."
"Tattoos are like permanent war-paint," says Glen, who says he has two sons himself, that these Fort Hood soldiers are "good kids -- babies, most of 'em."
Roxanne, who owns River City Tattoo and could easily pass for any of her soldier clientele's mothers, says she grew up around the military and she respects their desire to do their duty.
"But I don't like the duty this time," she says. "These kids put their heart and soul into these designs. They're saying, it's my body, it's my life, and I want to design it."