Finding catharsis through the art of tattoos

For 15 years, Roger Sparks has had one of the most dangerous jobs a person can have. As a para-rescuer for the Alaska Air National Guard, Sparks routinely plunges from helicopters into remote areas to administer medical treatment and assist in evacuation. When he’s in Alaska, he is sent— about once a week— to search for survivors of small plane crashes. He is also routinely deployed to serve with Special Forces operations in conflicts overseas.

Perhaps the most difficult day of his life was an operation with the 82nd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron in Afghanistan. In November 2010, he was lowered into a steep ravine to tend to wounded soldiers. Heavy artillery fire ensued and eventually four soldiers died in his arms.

Sparks received a Silver Star for tending to nine wounded soldiers that day. The citation says he “feverishly triaged chest wounds, punctured lungs, shattered hips, fist-sized blast holes… with limited medical supplies and only the light of the moon.”

For nearly a year after that incident, Sparks struggled with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. But he found some healing in a most unlikely place: tattoos. It began with a simple ink inscription on his right forearm which noted the date, time and coordinates of that firefight.

“Tattooing makes the intangible tangible. You couldn’t see my grief, but somehow getting that first tattoo made my grief tangible. It was a cathartic moment for me,” Sparks said from his home in Eagle River, Alaska.

Now Sparks is on a mission to bring healing to others who are dealing with grief. “At first I began tattooing other para-rescuers. I try to help them articulate their grief and sorrow and rage. But I’ve also gotten involved with outreach to wounded warriors, battered women and rape victims.”

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Sparks says he has always enjoyed doodling but didn’t consider himself an artist until he made the emotional connection with tattooing. Each tattoo begins with an elaborate drawing or painting. Sometimes his clients choose something he has already created. Other times, he collaborates with them to create something new.

Four years ago, a photographer named Joe Yelverton heard about Sparks’ art and documented it for an exhibit that eventually traveled around the United States.

“My art has become my way forward,” says Sparks. “I love the intimacy of tattooing. I love hearing the stories of others. And I love knowing that what I’m doing can help others deal with grief.”

This report originally appeared on “Indie Alaska,” an original video series produced by Alaska Public Media in partnership with PBS Digital Studios. Local Beat is an ongoing series on Art Beat that features arts and culture stories from PBS member stations around the nation.

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