How Tattoos Are Helping Ukrainian Soldiers in the Middle of a War

Sergey was given a few hours leave from duty to get his tattoo. After weeks of war he lies down to get inked. Joti Heir/Kyiv
Sergey took leave from his commander of the Territorial Defense Unit of the Ukrainian Armed Forces to get a tattoo. Joti Heir/Kyiv

The tattoo needle is buzzing, Metallica is playing softly in the background, and Sergey, a soldier with Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces is at the other end of that needle, taking a few hours away from the defense lines to take care of another responsibility.

“It is my duty to remember this,” he says.

The ‘this’ is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which began in the early hours of February 24, and has left more than 6000 people dead or injured according to the UN.

We’re in the underground of a building in central Kyiv, the cavernous white room with 5 neatly arranged tattoo beds above which hang blindingly bright ring lights is giving secret laboratory ambiance. 

Sergey’s automatic rifle rests on the floor next to the bed he is laying on. Tattoo artist Volodymyr, his hair pulled back tight in a ponytail, is huddled over Sergey’s left arm. Sergey is getting a tattoo of a yellow and blue stick man holding a bat, chasing after a swastika in the colors of the Russian flag. 

The owner of the tattoo parlour, Maria, says she’s received 7 times more requests for patriotic tattoos in the past few weeks than in the 8 years they’ve been open.

Deborah Davidson, associate professor of sociology at York University, has conducted extensive research into tattoos and meaning. She says she’s not surprised Ukrainian soldiers are turning to tattoos.

“Tattoos are a way to externalize trauma grief and thereby come to terms with it. There is element of ritual also since they invite conversation about the experiences and loss,” she explains.

Volodymyr and Sergey in discussion. Joti Heir/Kyiv

Volodymyr has been a tattoo artist for 8 years, he’s heard many tattoo stories and says he’s heard one common theme behind why people choose to get a tattoo.

“It is something to provide emotional support for yourself,” he says.

“It helps you move forward and take the next step.”

A 2017 paper by Everett W. Painter, Therapeutic Aspects of Tattoo Acquisition: A Phenomenological Inquiry into the Connection Between Psychological Trauma and the Writing of Stories into Flesh, echoes Volodymyr’s observations.

“Our human bodies serve to anchor us to the physical world … Disruption or threats to this system may alter self-understanding in fundamental ways. For the bearer, tattoos provide a permanent, on the body, in the flesh marker. A marker that may be used for reflection, processing, and redefinition of life experience,” Painter writes.

While headlines, videos, memes, and pictures are splashed across news sites and social media of heroic Ukrainian soldiers defending their country in a David and Goliath moment, the unromantic truth is that war is death. Ukrainian soldiers have died and will die, those that do not die will forever hold physical and psychological scars.

Kyiv tattoo parlour. Joti Heir/Kyiv.

Among Ukrainian soldiers, there is word spreading that in Bucha, in what is now being called a massacre, Russian soldiers specifically targeted those sporting patriotic tattoos.

“A soldier from Volnovakha came in yesterday, his whole tank battalion was killed, only he survived. They took him as a prisoner of war,” Maria explains.

“He told us he heard the Russians say they made the people take off their shirts and if they had a Ukrainian tattoo they killed them.”

That soldier was brought to Kyiv for treatment after a POW exchange. He has healed now, Maria says. He came into the tattoo shop to get the Ukrainian trident tattooed on his neck. 

In the days leading up to the February 24 attack, Sergey says life was humming along, he works in construction and was out to nearby sites like Irpin and Gostomel.

“The night before [the invasion] I came home from work and me and my wife went to a family celebration, we came home very late,” he says.

In the morning his wife shook him awake, telling him Russia had attacked. 

“I was still tired, I didn’t believe it. It’s not a dream? It’s not a joke? I didn’t believe it was happening,” he said.

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When it finally sunk in, he got up, got ready, and left the house.

“I told my wife I’m going fishing, if I told her the truth, she wouldn’t let me go,” said Sergey.

The truth was he headed to military headquarters to find out what was going on and to get weapons and gear. He was already a Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) reservist. 

 Sergey eventually did have to tell his wife where he was of course. 

“She kept calling so I sent her a picture of myself in my uniform.”

Sergey says when they finally spoke she cried and asked him to come back alive.

“Everything changed for me in 2014, when I saw they were killing protesters,” he said referring to the Maidan Uprising that took place between 2013 and 2014 over the then government’s lean toward Russian partnership.

“I knew that when that happened, everything would be different in Ukraine,” he said. 

Sergey was a volunteer in Independence Square in Kyiv where Maidan protesters were camped out in 2014. Clashes between the protesters and police led to close to 100 deaths. After the pro-Russian government was ousted Sergey joined the Territorial Defense Unit, the reserves of the Ukrainian army.

Sergey covered up his old Soviet tattoo with a triedent and Cossack warrior. Joti Heir/Kyiv
Sergey covered up his old Soviet tattoo with a triedent and Cossack warrior. Joti Heir/Kyiv

That’s also when he had an old Soviet navy tattoo on his right bicep covered up with the Ukrainian trident and a Cossack protector tattoo. 

On the second night of the Russian invasion, Sergey says Russians were already in Kyiv shooting from buildings.

“A saboteur group [was sent] to check the defense and to show they made it to Kyiv. They wanted to put Russian flags on buildings,” said Sergey.

“We were able to shoot them out.”

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Maria

On February 24, before sunrise, Maria received a call from her father.

He was in the southeast in Luhansk, near the Russian border, where the bombs fell first. He told her to get up and prepare documents for herself and her mother.

“It was early in the morning, it was dark. I went on Telegram and talked to anyone else who was awake. We tried to figure out what to do next,” she said.

Maria learned late last year from the city that her tattoo parlour sat in a designated bomb shelter. So what she had to do next was go to the tattoo parlour and prepare it to shelter civilians.

“We came here, we moved things so there could be places for people to sleep, but nobody came on the first night,” she said. 

She said they came the next night and were full every day after that. She said she would stay in the parlour with them all day and then return to her apartment in the evening to her elderly mother who refused to leave it.

About a month into the war she said she started receiving phone calls from people wanting to come in to get a patriotic tattoo. While the bomb shelter continued to run, they decided to partially open the tattoo parlour for a few hours in the day. Volodymyr is one of 3 tattoo artists Maria asked to come in a few times a week to help. 

Volodymyr working on the swastika portion of the tattoo. Joti Heir/Kyiv

Volodymyr

Volodymyr has returned to work very, very angry.

“Russia hates our people, for a long time this has been going on. My grandparents lived through the famine in 1932,” he said and then apologized for getting too worked up.

He’s referring to the Holodomor famine in the 1930s that killed millions of Ukrainians, his birthplace Uman where his grandparents lived was particularly hard hit. The famine is largely believed to be man-made and has been linked to Soviet-era policies under Joseph Stalin that some say were designed to exterminate the Ukrainian people.

On the morning of February 24, he got a frantic call from his sister in Uman, telling him to get up, telling him that Russia had attacked. He said he watched the news trying to figure out what to do next. 

“I’m not sure why, but just two days before, I packed all my documents into a bag,” says Volodymyr. 

He ended up heading to the tattoo parlour and helped Maria ready it for civilian shelter. While the parlour is returning to some semblance of service it remains a bomb shelter and for that reason can’t be named.

While tattoos can provide some sort of outlet for Sergey and other soldiers, the very immediate concern is one of staying alive and uninjured. The weapons and billions of dollars being pledged to help Ukraine win the war, two months into the war, cannot delete physical and psychological trauma. War money is of little help to broken hearts and broken lives. 

Since the war began, Sergey has been living with a team of soldiers in and around Kyiv. He won’t say how many soldiers or where. All he will share is their latest spot has a lot of bats and that the food being provided is good.

Volodymyr is now wrapping Sergey’s arm up in cling film. They both look pleased with the result. Sergey says he plans to come back for another tattoo on his right forearm when he can get permission to leave from his commander.

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