They memorialize. They motivate. They sometimes act as therapy. And, they change as the war changes, say tattoo artists:
Tattoo artist Jim Frost, 36, of Forever Tattoos, flipped through a portfolio showing unit patches, religious symbols and American eagle tattoos that he did for soldiers early in the war. A more recent popular tattoo shows a skeleton climbing out of a coffin and reaching for a Kevlar helmet.
It means "they'll do what they have to for the cost of freedom,"Frost says. Another recent tattoo carries the inscription "Never Forgotten" over the 101st Airborne Division banner with its eagle shedding a tear.
Tod Bain, 32, a tattoo artist at About Face Tattoo in Oceanside,Calif., has tattooed many Marines at nearby Camp Pendleton. Early in the conflict, Marines often asked for tattoos showing a skeleton holding a sword with the words "Once a Marine always a Marine."
Another popular Marine tattoo is called "the death dealer." It shows a skeleton holding the ace of spades and means "they're going to war,and they're ready to kill somebody," Bain says.
Some Marines wanted these "gung ho" type of tattoos upon their return, he says. Early in the war, one 18-year-old with a scar on the side of his head sat in Bain's tattoo chair. Bain says the Marine explained that the scar was from an injury during his first tour in Iraq, when an enemy rocket-propelled grenade bounced off his helmet without detonating.
The Marine wanted a tattoo of the Marine Corps motto, "Semper Fidelis," Bain says.
Now, he says, most Marines are asking for memorials.
Military tattoo gallery, here.