Veterans Day stands out from every other patriotic holiday on the calendar. Like the others there is the requisite flag waving, parades, and mattress sales, but what makes Veterans Day stand out is the somber tone and general gratitude expressed towards those that have served in the military. It’s that quality that makes the day perfect for connecting with the community and reaching out to show appreciation. When many people do this by simply putting a flag out on the porch, Rob Banks of East River Tattoo in Brooklyn knew he wanted to do something a little more novel. And permanent.
“I decided to do free tattoos for Veterans on Veterans Day as my own way of honoring the men and women who have served for our country,” Banks says. “As a veteran myself, I wanted to offer something a little more substantial than a free appetizer at a chain restaurant.”
For three years running, Banks has been offering the deal with the blessing of shop owner Duke Riley, and this year proved to be the most popular yet. Throughout the day roughly 20 veterans showed up at the shop looking to get one of Banks’ pieces of flash. Last year lucky veterans walked away eagles, this year the theme was a little sharper.
“Daggers came up due to the current affairs going on,” Banks says. “They just seemed fitting for the time, and you can't go wrong with a good dagger tattoo. They're great standing alone, fill gaps nicely, and so classic.”
As each subsequent client climbed into his chair, Banks was able to hear and share stories with his fellow veterans. The shop was filled with people who all shared a common tie, such a gathering helped Banks remember the reason that he was doing the event in the first place.
The idea of becoming a tattoo artist came to Banks while he was in the Air Force. Like so many of us, he had always been enamored by the idea of tattoos and was in the process of building his own collection. Until one day in a tattoo shop changed his life. “As I was getting a tattoo one day, the artist asked if I was interested in learning how to tattoo,” Banks says. “It was like a switch flipped, and I was like ‘holy shit!’ From that point I knew this is what I'm going to do, and was just waiting for my time in service to be finished.”
If it wasn’t for the conversation that Banks had getting that tattoo he wouldn’t be the artist that he is today. It’s stories like that one that remind us of how important a single tattoo can be to a person, and that is why we shouldn’t dismiss the value in what Banks does for veterans every year.
Each person who came into East River that day left with a gorgeous dagger tattoo and a story. No doubt people placed different meaning onto each of their pieces. Some got them to fill some space, others likely got them to remember a friend, some were tattooed as a way to commemorate their time in the service. It doesn’t matter what the actual reasoning behind each tattoo was, what matters is that Banks was able to give these veterans a gift that they will carry with them to the grave.
“I'm passionate about doing this because of the sacrifices made by these individuals,” Banks recalls. “There hasn't been a draft for decades, so every one of them willingly signed up. I can't help but appreciate the selflessness displayed in literally giving everything you've got.”