On August 7th, 2015 I showed a body of work focused on Roger Sparks, a tattoo artist and Air Force Pararescueman.
In the spring of 2012 I met a deeply solemn man named Roger Sparks.
I was at a dinner table surrounded by a small group of Alaska friends, listening to Roger share his combat experience as a special forces soldier. He seemed to be carefully navigating memories of an event that happened on foreign soil, thousands of miles away.
A year and a half had passed since his last deployment to Afghanistan, one of many tours in a life-long military career.
The intensity in Roger’s eyes shed more light on his story than did his words, reminding me that some experiences are too visceral for the convenience of spoken language.
Along with a combat rescue officer, Roger was sent into a precipitous battlefield to triage a platoon of critically injured men still under fire. He quickly treated the ones who stood some chance of survival, and he fought like hell while running from one casualty to the next. The rescue mission lasted into the night and Roger would eventually return to his air base covered in blood.
The next time I saw Roger we had a long conversation about art. This time, Roger’s words connected with his experience. He was articulate, even poetic, and anything but solemn. It wasn’t long before I started watching him make his art—drawing, painting, music, and tattooing.
After knowing this man for a short time it occurred to me that he is one of those people the universe seems to choose to bear the suffering of the sins of the world. Until I met Roger I never believed in such a concept. Now I know this is commonplace for combat-hardened soldiers.
Art is Roger’s first language.
Many times I have observed Roger lose himself in the creative process, much the same as an extraordinary concert pianist who seems unaware of the audience when the theatre lights are dimmed, and the spotlight shifts to the stage.
My portrait of Roger spotlights his work as a tattoo artist.
The more tattoo sessions I witnessed, the more I realized that Roger’s art is a conveyance for an intimate connection with the person lying on his table. Many of his clients have faced traumatic, life altering events. After Roger meticulously prepares his equipment, and the needle first touches the skin, his studio begins filling with a perceptible air of intense vulnerability that, at times, has challenged my own objectivity. At times I’ve had to force myself to keep shooting, while I was simultaneously moved by the intense conversations I was hearing—of combat, personal sacrifice, and loss.
Roger’s studio is unique from conventional street shops. I’ve witnessed sessions that lasted up to twelve continuous hours, often involving painstaking detail and physical duress for both Roger and his client. Roger’s tattooing is both a physical and spiritual practice, where concentration is paramount. I suspect Roger is capable of tattooing for twelve straight hours for two main reasons: because he’s a warrior, and because art is his salvation.
August 7, 2015