The BBC recently did an news story on the use of Meat Tags within the USMC.
It is a grim reminder of the cost of war. But for marines based at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, getting a meat tag – a tattooed copy of their vital information inked into their skin – means paying a visit to Jesse Mays before they head off to war.
“They’re used to identify a corpse. They’re not for the living.”
Jesse Mays is sitting on a stool in what he calls his “operating room” – a small room next to a vault. This building used to be a bank, he says. The heavy round vault door sits open, now filled with filing cabinets and canvases.
Lying shirtless on the black leather table next to him is Gunnery Sergeant Mike “Gunny” Greer, one arm raised over his head. Spiked restraints hang from the sides of the table. Jesse laughs and says they are just for fun, “unless you fidget too much.”
Jesse Mays has done over 30,000 tattoos in his career.
The Sleeping Dragon Tattoo Parlor is in the small town of Jacksonville, just outside Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base. Inside the Dragon, as Jesse calls it, Bob Marley is both on the stereo and on the walls.
In another story, the AFP did on Meat Tags in 2003
Reservist Ernie Firkin will be deployed to the Gulf any day now, part of the next wave of US Marines to join the war on Iraq.
Like many of his buddies in the Corps, he has decided he wants his dog tag permanently tattooed on his torso.
Firkin and Roger Eiser, a fellow Devil Dog, headed off base Saturday to one of the many tattoo parlors in Jacksonville, North Carolina, the civilian backyard of Camp LeJeune, home to some 43,000 Marines.
Weekends are busy at Primal Ink, says Jessica Lakes, whose boyfriend Phillip Peters owns the parlor. “After they’ve partied and got their tattoos, they get their hair cut before going to work on Monday.”
Customers usually come in twos or threes, shooting pool or watching TV in the lounge where hundreds of designs are displayed on the wall and in swinging panels.
But Firkin, who already has “USMC” — for US Marine Corps — tattooed on his back, was only interested in having his name, social security number, service branch and blood type permanently emblazoned on the left side of his torso, by the bottom couple of ribs.
Such a tattoo, known as a “meat tag,” was devised “so if you get blown up they can identify you,” Peters said. “I’ve heard it called the largest piece of you left.”
Lakes added: “They get them so they can be buried with full honors and with their families.”
Noting that these days Primal Ink’s three artists do about 50 meat tags a week, with spikes coming after pay days, Lakes said some customers were motivated by the brutal reputation of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Eiser, who had selected an arm band design for his left bicep, was doubtful. “If you hit an anti-personnel mine it don’t matter what you got on… I ain’t getting a meat tag. What’s the point of that? You got your dog tags hanging on your neck.”
Undeterred, Firkin double-checked his meat tag’s vital information before Peters made a stencil of the simple artwork for transfer onto his ribs.
The artist, wearing green surgical gloves, took the precaution of taping gauze over Firkin’s fresh small pox vaccination before the 24-year-old from Woodbridge, Virginia, lay back in a reclining seat, similar to a dentist’s chair, to go under the electric tattoo needle.
Firkin said his father liked to say “It don’t tickle,” but he betrayed no discomfort through the 20-minute procedure carried out on a notoriously sensitive part of the body.
“Ribs is a tender area,” said an artist named Butch at another parlor, Fantasy Tattoo. Getting a meat tag “is a way of showing that you don’t mind suffering a little bit to show who you are.”
He said: “If you’re ‘about it’ (being a Marine), you make a sacrifice.” The Marines get meat tags, a custom that dates back to the Vietnam War, “because they’re Marines.”