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The Human Canvas

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Posted October 03, 2013 | Laura Stetler

Armed With Arts

“The Human Canvas”

October 2, 2013

Last week I caught a segment on NPR’s show All Things Considered about the Army adopting stricter regulations on tattoos above the neckline and on limb extremities. The segment made me curious. So I went looking for Josh Smith’s article in Stars and Stripes that revealed the ensuing firestorm. While reading Smith’s piece and scrolling through the fiery sparring matches in the comments sections, I was struck by the deeply personal and creative nature of getting inked. Though not inclined to get into a messy fracas about the Army’s decision, I think it is interesting to consider the human skin as a canvas.

Merriam-Webster defines canvas as “a specially prepared piece of cloth on which a picture can be painted by an artist.” If we accept the premise that our skin can act as such a canvas, then creative expression by an artist through ink on that canvas is similar to painting. By extension, tattoos could be considered “paintings.” More than one painting (tattoo) would be a gallery or let us say a permanent art collection—no doubt a deeply personal process of acquisition.


Though tattoos are not everyone’s chosen medium for personal expression, the experience of being captivated by image, color, and/or message and wanting to incorporate those into our being touches us all. This is why I invest in and hold dear pictures, paintings, and objects that resonate with who I am and want to be. We can memorialize our grief, shared experiences, memories, hopes, dreams, and wishes by selecting an artist’s work for traditional canvas or our skin.

Not surprisingly, a lengthy and robust relationship has formed between the military and tattoos. The PBS page Skin Stories points to tattoos becoming part of military culture as early as the Civil War. Tattooed images and insignia provide a buffer to talk about experiences in the service by approaching the conversation indirectly. Perhaps this history points to why many ink studios (tattoo parlors) are often a stone’s throw from military installations even today?

Kitsap is no exception to the military tattoo connection and sports its own lively industry of ink. Reframing these ink studios as places where artists and the military community memorialize personal expression has brought me to a broader definition of canvas. The human canvas of skin can serve as transportable creative expression--art--that equips people to remember, share, and aspire.


Armed: being equipped, fortified, inspired, and powered to affect are refreshingly desirable characteristics.

With Arts: is the spectrum of creative activity and expression - both passive and active - that arms us to fill our living canvases.