Q&A: ‘War Paint’ Photographer, Author Kyle Cassidy
West-Philly based photographer Kyle Cassidy has crossed the globe snapping shots of just about everything – punks, Goths, politicians, animals, people with guns. Most recently, though, he’s taken on the military. As the featured cover story in this week’s Philadelphia Weekly, Cassidy’s newest project, War Paint: Tattoo Culture and the Armed Forces, features images of American warriors with their ink, and the oft-odd, oft-sad, oft-inspiring story that goes along with it.
As a supplement to the story, we spoke with Cassidy about the project, and what it’s like to essentially be an international photographer making your home along the Schuykill River.
Where did the idea for the War Paint project come from?
In a lot of ways it came from inheriting a bunch of WWII era things from my grandmother, her book of ration coupons and her air-raid drill certificate and photo albums and realizing that during that war ordinary Americans were suffering and actually depriving themselves of things for the war effort. WWII was very real every day — you couldn’t buy the bicycle you wanted or the clothes or the food because everything was diverted to the war effort and that’s not happening at all right now, we can live our lives completely unaware of what’s happening in Iraq and Afghanistan and I think that ability does a disservice to everyone, it allows us to put the people actually fighting these wars out of our minds and imagine that it’s all vague drone strikes if we imagine it’s happening at all. So I’d wanted to do something that would draw attention to what some people were actually giving up because “we” — the big inclusive American we — asked them to. So that was in the back of my mind in a general way for a long time and in 2007 I met an 84 year old man with a paratrooper tattooed on his arm and I asked him about it and he talked for two hours and I realized that nobody had ever asked him about his tattoo and that nobody was writing these stories down.
How did you go about finding your subjects for the project?
It was a mixture of professional organizations and word of mouth. I did some things at VFW’s and veterans groups and tattoo parlors but I found that my stories got more diverse if I went by word of mouth, so whenever I’d be headed somewhere photographing something I’d post to my blog about it and people would email and say “oh, my dad lives there and he’s got a USMC bulldog on his thigh” or whatever. The people at the Battleship New Jersey were really nice to me and hosted events for me there and that was really good.
Who would you say was the hardest veteran to find for the book that you feel was an absolute necessary addition – why/how did you get in contact with him/her?
There are a lot of people who are trying to forget what happened and even forty or sixty years later they don’t want to talk about it and don’t want to think about it. Those were the hard ones.
How would you say military tattoos change based upon the era the vet served?
A lot of the WWII era tattoo stories started out with “I got really drunk one night….” and that doesn’t happen anymore. It’s rarer to find impulse tattoos in the past fifteen years or so, many of the new ones are decisions that took weeks or months and involved a great deal of thought and design. The use of “flash” or prepared tattoo designs you find in a book or hanging on the wall in a tattoo parlor seems to have gone down a lot, people want something unique and they’re working a lot more with the artists. Also the tattoos themselves have gotten a lot more intricate, the shading is a lot better, the tattoo artists today are incredibly skilled. And also many of the tattoos today are a lot more metaphorical, the stores and symbolism are often very deep.
Without choosing a favorite, which tattoo you photographed (or tattoos) stands out as particularly unique? (and why?)
There’s a guy named Dave Montee from Illinois who got a Navy tattoo on his arm and later was sent to Vietnam and his experience there really disillusioned him and eventually he had a panther tattooed over top of the Navy tattoo, covered it up completely, so that might be the most unique one because it’s invisible. I like the fact that it’s there but you can’t see it.
How did this project compare to some of your past work, like Armed America or Who Killed Amanda Palmer?
I think it’s a lot like Armed America in many ways because it really is a portrait of some aspect of the country. I was working on another project about rocking chairs and their stories that I saw as another part of that and I imagine myself as an old man fifty years from now with this 30 volume diary of different bits of the country. I see myself as half serious documentary photographer and half goofy conceptual photographer and every time I do something big and serious like Armed America and people start saying “oh yes, he’s such a serious artist” I freak out a little and think “I need to do something creative and silly and high concept” and then invariably people say “he’s so funny!” and I panic and swing back the other way. So doing Who Killed Amanda Palmer which was a funny book in some ways was a reaction to spending all that time working on Armed America.
You seem to be all over the place with your work – literally traveling all over the country and world. What made you choose West Philadelphia as a home base?
I moved to West Philly years ago because you could get a house with a garage and a driveway and a back yard and lots of studio space for not a lot of money. When I moved in it was a pretty shady area, my next door neighbors were drug dealers and occasionally at 4:00 in the morning police would smash their front door in with a sledge hammer and race in and arrest everyone and there were gunshots on a regular basis and over the years that’s completely changed. So I still have the house with the garage and the back yard but the neighborhood’s a lot nicer and I’m fifteen minutes from the airport.
And what’s your favorite thing about working out of Philadelphia?
I like the artistic community, that there are people living in my neighborhood who I can rely on for models and makeup artists and whatnot. I like that I can live here and not have to drive everywhere.
What sorts of upcoming projects do you have in store?
I’m working on two big projects right now, one is called “Where I Write” and it’s a collection of portraits of science fiction writers and the spaces they write in, I see that as a multi-volume work that will eventually include romance writers and mystery writers and I’m also working on a collection of portraits of rollergirls which has been really wonderful. I’ve been all over the country working on both of those and having a really great time.