The touching stories behind 9/11 tattoos

Permanent Reminders: 9/11 tattoos keeping stories alive 15 years later

Brian Branco is not a tattoo type of a guy.

The 50-year-old technology consultant normally wouldn’t have wanted someone to pierce ink into his skin. Yet each upper arm is marked with prominent images that include the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, as well as the number 93 to symbolize the hijacked Flight 93 that crashed in Shanksville, Pa., and the 1993 World Trade Center attack.

His ink includes the words “Never Forget,” the phrase “No day shall erase you from the memory of time,” and the names Bob, Jill and Steve.

Those are his colleagues who died when the towers crumbled.

“I would have never gotten any tattoos if it wasn’t for September 11 and my need to keep the memory alive of my friends who died that day,” he says.

“Never Forget” is the mantra of many affected by those terrorist attacks — and Branco is among the scores of people who have done just that by putting a permanent reminder on their skin.

Broken hearts, eagles, the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, American flags and the names of the deceased are among the wide array of tattoos that mark that day. Some are small, such as a delicate “never forget” written in tiny script on a wrist of survivor Evelyn Lugo. Others are bold designs covering large swaths of skin.

The tattoos represent grief, anger, courage, patriotism, frustration, hope and resilience. They pay tribute. They invite observers to ask questions and allow a story about terrorism, death, heroism and healing to be retold.

They are akin to “putting our heart on our sleeves, so to speak,” says Susan Salluce, a death, dying and bereavement specialist and author of GriefINK: Tattoo as the Language of Grief. 

Following the terrorist attacks, people took solace in tattoo studios. Josh Everett estimates he and his fellow tattoo artists at a now-closed shop  in downtown Manhattan inked at least 1,000 people after offering free tattoos as a way to give back.

“We worked with police officers, firefighters, EMS, paramedics, civilians and the military,” he says. New Yorkers, as well out-of-town visitors, lined up for their services. Some patrons exuded anger, others would breakdown and cry. Throughout, the artists often served as "armchair psychiatrists," Everett says.

“It was a heavy, emotional time,” he says. “It was probably the most significant thing I did as a tattoo artist.”

Fifteen years later, people are still paying homage via their skin.

This spring, Michael Anthony Cascio III — who was 4 years old when the attacks happened — got a 9 inch by 11 inch  tattoo on his right torso. It shows the New York City skyline with two beams of light representing the Twin Towers and is set against an American flag. Underneath, it says “Strong men stand up for themselves. Stronger men stand up for others.”

Cascio, 19, says the events of Sept. 11 are his earliest childhood memory. Upon hearing stories of firefighters heading into buildings to save others as people were running out, he decided that was the job for him. He is now on the waiting list to join the New Rochelle, N.Y., fire department.

This summer, New York City Police Department officer Steven Waldron, 41, tattooed the names of 23 NYPD officers who died on Sept. 11 down his right arm. He also added the names of two friends who died that day, a firefighter and emergency service worker.

"I always wanted something" he says, and with the 15-year mark looming, he decided to act. "I wanted to get it done for the anniversary."

Waldron, who was off-duty and in the area assisting on 9/11, says he was buried in the debris and didn't know if he would live. He still has bouts of survivor's guilt and feelings of frustration.

The tattoo helps to deal with that.

It's a way to "honor these guys," he says. "They are a part of my life."

People stop to ask him about the names that cascade down his arm, and “it’s good to talk about it," he says.

Retired New York City Fire Department  Capt. Thomas O’Brien says he welcomes inquiries about the large, intricate design on his left arm. It’s in remembrance of the nearly 3,000 lives lost that day, he says, “especially the sacrifice made by 343 firefighters, 95 which I knew personally.”

O’Brien, 54, was off-duty that morning but rushed to the scene, arriving after the second tower collapsed.

“The phoenix rises from hell to heaven,” he says in describing the artwork on his arm. “Hell was the World Trade Center that day.”

Max Giaccone’s tattoos honor his father, Joseph Giaccone, who died while working on the 103rd floor of the North Tower.

"Getting the tattoos was definitely a coping mechanism in some ways for me,” he says.

Max, now 25, got the first tattoo at age 16. It shows the New York City skyline in a broken heart, a nod to the logo of the punk rock band The Bouncing Souls. Above the heart are the Roman numerals IXXI for 911. Below is the word "DAD."

"I wasn’t sure if 9/11 was something I wanted to look at in the mirror every day,” he says. "The Roman numerals were a bit more of a subtle reminder."

His second tattoo — on his back — is a replica of one of Max's favorite photos. It shows his father holding him as a baby.

"I don't see it all the time, but when I do, it's nice to be reminded that he's got my back and he's always there with me," he says. "I get to carry him with me wherever I go."

Contributing:  Michael Monday, Sara Snyder, Rui Ellie Miao and Brittney Bennett 

USA TODAY


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