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Chief connects with People as an Airman and Tattoo Artist

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Julie Avey
  • 168th Wing

EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE , AK -- People have been marking their skin for thousands of years. Around the world, across cultures, tattoos hold different significances. Ancient Siberian nomads, Indigenous Polynesians, Nubians, Native South Americans, and Greeks used tattoos for various reasons.

The oldest documented tattoos belong to Otzi the Iceman, whose preserved body was discovered in the Alps between Austria and Italy in 1991. He died around 3300 B.C., but according to a Penn State professor, inserting pigment under the skin’s surface originated long before Otzi.
In Japan, tattooing is thought to date back to the Paleolithic era, and tattooed Egyptian mummies have been uncovered dating to the age of the pyramids.

According to PBS, Martin Hildebrandt set up a permanent tattoo shop in New York City in 1846 and began tattooing military servicemen from both sides of the Civil War. In England, King Edward VII started a tattoo fad among the aristocracy when tattooed before ascending to the throne.
These trends mirror the cultural beliefs that inspired Polynesian tattoos: to show loyalty and devotion, to commemorate a remarkable feat in battle, or to beautify the body with a distinctive work of art.

Eygypt’s international trade spread the practice of tattooing to Crete, Greece, and Arabia, and the history of tattooing continues in ancient China, as well as among Celtic and Northern European tribes, such as the Picts and in Samoa and the Polynesian islands, where the word “tatou” originated.

The World War II era of the 1940s was considered the Golden Age of tattoos due to the patriotic mood and the preponderance of men in uniform.

Today, tattooing is recognized as an art form that brings people together.

“I’ve always been into art,” said Chief Master Sgt. George Bender, 168th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron Chief. “Growing up, I would watch my sister and think that was cool. She inspired me.”

Bender serves in the 168th Wing, Alaska Air National Guard.

During his off-duty hours away from the unit, he delves into his love and passion for art as a tattoo artist at Sublime Line Tattoos in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Bender talks about his path to an apprenticeship as a tattoo artist. “Once I got my first tattoo when I was 17, I was like, yeah, I want to do this – this is really cool.”

He ended up covering up his first tattoo with a design he had drawn during his maintenance technical school in the Air Guard.

Later, he would start drawing in a shop where he would get tattoos done in Fairbanks. “I would draw, and he would show me certain techniques, which made me even more involved.”

Years later, Bender had the chance to make time for an apprenticeship as he juggled family and serving in the Air National Guard. During his apprenticeship, he would get off work, let the dogs out, and work late into the night seven days a week.

The training includes 1000 hours in shop tattooing, observing, drawing, perfecting technique, color theory, and studying sanitation, safety, and blood-borne pathogens. A tattoo apprenticeship allows students to learn everything they can from an established tattoo artist.

On Aug. 11, 2018, he became a professional tattoo artist.

Bender serves as a Chief Master Sgt. in the Aircraft Maintenance Squadron and has held many career fields in the Air Guard. Some of those are Repair and Reclamation, Maintenance Operation Center in the Maintenance Operation Flight, Isochronal Inspections supervisor, Aerospace Ground Equipment Element supervisor, and ISO Element supervisor.

“I swore in Sept. 13, 1995, right here with the 168th,” said Bender. “I was a conductor with the Alaska Railroad from 1998 to Sept. 2001. I was activated for a year and returned to the railroad for a few months. Then, I decided to return to the Guard, taking a full-time technician position in the Repair and Reclamation Shop."

Over the years, he has drawn and developed designs for the KC-135 Stratotanker nose art, unit patches, and various projects for unit organizations such as Top 3. His art is currently being used on the Maintenance Group unit patch worn on the shoulder of all the MXG members, representing their pride in their maintenance craftsmanship.

In the Maintenance Group building halls hang artwork that Bender has contributed to, which boosts the unit's esprit de corps.

As you enter the Maintenance Group, the main hall is filled with nose art, a part of the unit’s history, and there hangs a piece of art Bender designed completely showcasing a Yeti, Alaska Pipeline, and gas pump as a tribute to the 168 WG aerial refueling mission here in Alaska and around the world.

It has been a tradition at the 168 WG MXG for the dedicated crew chief to be able to choose the nose artwork for the aircraft they are assigned. The dedicated crew chiefs are assigned aircraft and are the lead for those tail numbers. They know the aircraft in and out and are responsible for it.

Bender is proud to be a part of a tradition, “Seeing the art I create either in public or on people’s sleeves, aircraft. Knowing they trust me to create something for them or their unit signifies who they are, what they believe in – and it’s just plain fun to draw and create things in general.”

The nose art of one of the Alaska Air Guard 168 WG KC-135s currently part of the lineup at Eielson Air Force Base is another art piece Bender was a part of making and bringing Alaska and coffee lovers together. The nose art displays a moose holding a steaming cup of coffee.

Bender likes to draw for people. When asked about his favorite part of tattooing, he said, “The People – seeing their faces, especially when the design means something. When their dog dies, they ask you to tattoo their paw prints, and it really means something. People are fun to talk to, and then you see their faces knowing you did a cool piece.”

He added designing is cool. People come up with rad ideas.

“Like mine,” said his friend Brian Dianoski while Bender tattooed him.

The conversation led to asking if there are tattoos he would not want to do as an artist. “I would refer them to other shops if I’m not the right fit and it’s not something I want to do. I only have so much time to book. I have a full-time job and could be with my wife, so I choose the projects carefully.

“Once this becomes work to me, I won’t be doing it anymore,” said Bender. “One of the hardest parts of the job is finding a shop you like and are comfortable in and finding people you are comfortable around doing this stuff. Mikey and Chelsie are cool to be around.”

A part of being a tattooist is putting your clients at ease, having artistic abilities, a good imagination, good hand-eye coordination skills, and a steady hand.

“I feel honored George is doing my first tattoo,” said Dianoski. “He is a great friend. I knew I wanted a tattoo, but it took me many years, and once I met George, I wanted him to do the tattoo.”

Being a part of the unit for 28 years, he has done tattoos for unit members.

He has been a part of tattoo competitions. “I tattooed Dylan Latham’s arm at the convention and Mike Mascari for 8 hours one day and five more another day. I still see their artwork; being at the unit and as a friend is great.

Bender often looks at the photos of his tattoos and shares, “I’ve done super cool pieces, but the ones I’ve connected with people are my favorite,” said Bender.

A tattoo that stands out is the one he won first place with in an art competition. “It was two years ago, and it meant a lot. It is a tattoo of my bulldog, and it is on my wife’s leg.”

A couple of tattoos he has done for his daughter are his favorite.

His cousin Ricky lives in England and tattoos. They met as children and have reconnected as adults. When the unit travels to England, some of the unit members will get tattoos from his cousin.

“We have even worked together,” said Bender. “He has started the tattoo, and I have finished them – A colab across the pond.”

Bender has been an Alaskan resident for 39 years. His Dad’s last duty station was at Eielson AFB.