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Tattoos become personal memorials to Sept. 11 and lost loved ones
By Tara Godvin, Associated Press
NEW YORK — Before Sept. 11, Charlie Ross had three tattoos -- Bugs Bunny, a peace sign and a feather design. After the attack, he added a fourth -- a left forearm design with the Sept. 11 date, the tower and floor from which he escaped, and a cross symbolizing four people who died.
Ross, a manager at Bank of America on the 81st floor of the north tower, lost three co-workers and a friend, Steven Strobert, a trader at Cantor Fitzgerald, in the attack.
"New Year's Eve, we all toasted to Steve and kissed my arm," said Ross, 32. "I figure one day we'll all be together."
Ross was hardly alone in deciding that a tattoo could express his feelings about the terrorist attacks that destroyed the trade center and killed 2,800 people.
Soon after the attack, firefighters, police officers and bereaved relatives were flocking to tattoo parlors, seeking solace though memorials inked into their skin. Like those long favored by military veterans, Sept. 11 tattoos have become a public declaration of loss, defiance and survival.
With business virtually shut down after the attacks, MacDougal Street Tattoo in lower Manhattan offered free tattoos to ground zero recovery workers. Many chose from a selection of patriotic and anti-al-Qaida designs put together by co-owner Joshua Everett.
"We were putting in overtime like the guys downtown were putting in overtime," said Everett. "It is probably the most significant thing I've done in tattoo. It made me feel a part of the community."
The proprietors of Island Tattoo, on Staten Island, say they have decorated more than 300 firefighters with a commemorative design. Half of the revenue, they say, is donated to a fund for widows and children -- $11,500 so far. Gary Lustig, a firefighter who designed the tattoo, said it has been "medicinal" in helping firefighters recover emotionally.
Though most customers have asked for simple patriotic symbols like flags and bald eagles, some of the Sept. 11 body art is spectacular.
"Tattooing itself has evolved so that it can meet 9-11," said Dr. Enid Schildkrout, curator of the 2000 exhibition "Body Art: Marks of Identity" at the American Museum of Natural History.
Sept. 11 tattoos represent a convergence of body art's growing popularity and the need to acknowledge that life has changed, Schildkrout said.
"It is a way of remembering something that was going to disappear from your life, of immediately saying this is who I am. I don't want to forget. I don't want anyone else to forget."
She said many designs reflect techniques and styles from Japan, where "yakuza" (gangsters) cover their bodies with tattoos, some of them derived from classic art.
Steven Dunbar, 30, had always wanted a tattoo of King Kong. He now has one, showing the famous ape catching the planes and saving the towers. The design, wrapped around his left leg, took 20 hours to apply and 10 days to heal.
"I thought it was painful. But it wasn't nearly as painful as what other people went through that day," said Dunbar.
Kevin McAleese, 42, a New York City police detective, said he arrived at ground zero as the second tower fell. That day he lost his brother, Brian, a firefighter.
When Brian's body still hadn't been found more than five months later, McAleese said he searched for something to remember him by. A tattoo on his right arm shows the towers inside a badge, surrounded by four shamrocks for the four children Brian, 36, left behind.
"It's been a rough 11 months," said McAleese, anticipating the anniversary. "I plan to be away from every TV."
Four members of the Cannizzaro family have memorial tattoos for firefighter Brian Cannizzaro, 30. Brother Charles and sister-in-law Tami have matching tattoos of his badge number, which he inherited from his father, Sam, a 32-year veteran.
But Sam and his youngest son Craig had another image in mind.
When Brian died in the towers on Sept. 11, Sam said he immediately thought of Brian's favorite movie, "The Gladiator." He decided he wanted a tattoo of his son as the gladiator along with a motto from the movie, "Strength and Honor."
On a computer, the tattoo artist substituted Brian's features for those of actor Russell Crowe and made the figure left-handed, like Brian. After six hours under a buzzing needle, 65-year-old Sam had his first tattoo.
"I thought it was a way that he would be part of me -- just an assurance that he'd be a part of me forever now," said Sam, whose tattoo covers his left calf. "I know that when my time comes we'll be together."
Brian's brother, Craig, 28, put a similar design on his left arm. Continuing a Cannizzaro tradition, he started training this month at the New York City Fire Academy under his brother's and father's badge number. Like Sam, he sees his tattoo of Brian as a way to always keep his brother with him.
"I just know that he'll always be with me," said Craig. "I know I can just look over my shoulder and he's right there."