ROCHESTER - Artist Misty Chastain is in the shop a little early on a recent Sunday to prepare. Iraq war veteran Derrick Brooks is there, too. They are an unusual pair who’ve come together as founders of an organization called Warrior Ink. The aim of their project is to pair her artistry with the needle with his skills as a listener to help veterans confront the wounds of war. They are believers in what is loosely called ink therapy, a Zen-like healing combination of endorphins and empathy.
“People tend to open up to their tattoo artist, whether they are paying attention or not,” said Brooks, who served for almost four years in the infantry with the Army’s 101st Airborne. “When you are getting tattooed, you really don’t think about the other pain you are going through.”
Chastain, who has been tattooing for five years but has been an artist her entire life, said the personal pain she has experienced may help develop the rapport she has with her clients.
“It’s not just veterans, but all my clients, as soon as they sit in my chair they’ve established that relationship with me and entrust a lot of their personal life with me, and they don’t even know me,” she said. “Tattoos are time consuming. I’ve never had someone sit in the chair and not say anything. To let someone put something personal on your body, how could you not tell a story?”
The two met when Brooks’ wife suggested he book an appointment with Chastain. Afterward, Brooks, who has training with peer support and trauma counseling through the Wounded Warrior Project, was impressed with Chastain’s soft touch, and thought she could help veterans struggling with their combat experiences. Chastain saw the partnership as an opportunity to honor her grandfather, a Vietnam War veteran now facing health issues because of his exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange.
Before they got started, Chastain and Brooks visited her grandfather to present the idea of the project, and Brooks was able to elicit emotions from him that Chastain saw as cementing the need to go forward.
“I never really knew his story. He never talked about it,” she said of her grandfather, who has “Love” and “Hate” tattooed on his knuckles. “It was a side of my grandfather that I had never seen before.”
Warrior Ink could be the definition of the phrase “shoestring operation.” It’s just Brooks and Chastain. They don’t charge a fee and don’t accept donations.
Since the project began in August, news of their work has spread through a modest Facebook page but mostly by word of mouth through the state’s veteran community.
Just recently, Chastain left the Rochester shop to venture off on her own, temporarily postponing bookings through the rest of the year. Still, vets are already lining up for a chance to spend a few hours on Chastain’s table in 2017.
She hopes to open her own shop in Austin, Minn., and resume the project by January. Supporters have started a GoFundMe page, but Chastain says she will continue on her own terms and with her own financing if she must.
“It’s important for me to pay it forward,” she said.
About a dozen vets have participated so far. One had an image of his service dog tattooed on his calf as the dog lay resting nearby on the shop floor. A female veteran who was the victim of military sexual trauma requested an image of the Hindu god, Ganesha, who is revered as the remover of obstacles and the god of beginnings.
Brooks conducts the vetting process and books the appointments. Chastain exchanges pictures and ideas with the vet before they meet for the first time. She often spends hours on drafts and edits. Most of the work is spent on new tattoos.
One, though, was a particularly cathartic modification of an existing tattoo. The former Army Ranger, diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, had the word R-A-G-E scripted in Old English letters on his back. Chastain added six letters to reflect his new life, which includes working as a therapist for other veterans. The tattoo now reads C-O-U-R-A-G-E-O-U-S.
“The whole idea of this is to replace something negative with something positive,” Brooks said.
Her drawing, his vision
On a recent Sunday, Brooks and Chastain shared a smoke in the parking lot outside the shop, tucked next to 4 Paws Paradise pet grooming on the south side of town. Chastain’s own tattoos include a prominent image on her neck of a cicada, a symbol of rebirth and longevity. They await the arrival of Iraq war veteran Steve Major, who is requesting a very personal image.
A barrel-chested hockey player with bulging biceps who arrives wearing a tight “ARMY” T-shirt, Major is momentarily overcome with emotion when he sees what Chastain puts before him on tracing paper.
Her drawing is his vision: a Purple Heart draped over an outline of the map of Iraq. There are letters and numbers beneath it: MC3135637348. They are the military grid coordinates of where Major’s convoy was attacked in 2006 outside a U.S. military base at Taji, north of Baghdad, while with the Minnesota National Guard.
As the session begins, Chastain, who is intense but unassuming, says little, focusing her instrument on the outline on Major’s biceps. The buzz of the needle pulsating into Major’s arm provides a surprisingly comforting constant in the room. Major and Brooks, bearded and bearlike wearing a T-shirt that says “PTSD, You are not alone,” hit it off. They quickly share a bond over military lingo, complaining about the VA and wartime experiences that civilians could never understand.
Brooks sits on a stool nearby as Major tells the story of the incident that has brought him to the shop on this day.
Major’s convoy was hit in an area that Major, as a scout gunner, was confident was secure. A rocket-propelled grenade struck his Humvee, lifting the back of the 5,200-pound vehicle 5 feet, slamming him to the ground. The firefight lasted 45 minutes and ended only when Special Forces aircraft arrived and took out almost two dozen insurgents.
Major was hit with shrapnel, suffered a traumatic brain injury and later developed PTSD. Two other soldiers were also wounded. Major, who says he takes personal responsibility for the attack, tells Brooks he still wakes up to the sound of the firefight. He jokes that he now calls his Purple Heart his Enemy Sniper Badge.
“I felt like I was meant to come back,” he says, noting that he is alive and his attackers are not.
In gentle questioning, Brooks moves Major away from that day. They talk about Major’s hockey team, the Minnesota Warriors, made up exclusively of Purple Heart recipients. Major is a captain of the team.
Two hours after it begins, Major is off the table and inspecting the artwork in a mirror.
“Oh, man. That is awesome,” he says.
As Chastain tapes over the tattoo for healing, Major extends his hand in what appears at first to be simple gesture of thanks. As she reaches out, he gives her a Purple Heart coin he has tucked into his palm. Her eyes begin to tear as he reflects on his newest tattoo.
“That one hurt a lot more,” he admits. “But talking kept my mind off it.”