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Five Questions with the Tattooed Historian, John Heckman

"It is not only one generation who may forget its history, it is an entire society."

By Chris Isleib
Director of Public Affairs, United States World War One Centennial Commission

The world of World War I historians has no voice more unique than John Heckman. Also known as the Tattooed Historian, John has had long experience with teaching, and creating Living History impressions for other genres, including the Civil War, before he started to really devote his maximum efforts to World War I. John is very active online, hosting successful a Podcast series, Twitter, and Facebook social media accounts. John's take on history is very fresh -- he brings modern sensibility, personal viewpoint, and soldier-level context, to his interpretation of historical topics. John has also been a great friend and partner to the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission, participating in several of our key events, including parades, commemorations, and the design rollout of the National World War I Memorial in Washington DC. John can be found online at:

You have an education background, and have been doing Living-History for decades. Tell us your thoughts about 'Living History'. What can a reenactor's impression get across to people that other forms of education cannot? What does it bring to the milieu?

John HeckmanJohn Heckman,AKA the Tattooed Historian, giving a battlefield tour.Living history, when done correctly, is a beautiful tool to educate all people, regardless of backgrounds. What do I mean by "correctly?" What I mean is that your history can be footnoted; it can be found within the pages of primary or secondary sources. To truly connect with the past and the viewing public, an interpreter must be passionate about getting it right. When the pieces of this puzzle come together, it provides an invaluable educational tool to work in tandem with a historical site, non-profit, or school setting.

Tell us about your background, and you work in this world of Living-History. Tell us about the impressions that you have developed. Tell us about how you generally got interested in history, in the first place. Tell us what drew you to the world of World War I.

I became interested in history at a very young age. I was around eight years old when I started reading books by Bruce Catton on the American Civil War. I would shut myself inside my room for hours and read. It was an escape mechanism due to growing up in a broken home. History also allowed me to live other lives through the pages of text when it seemed like my own life was a little rough. I finally started doing living histories at the age of twelve. My grandparents would take me to events so I could take part in them. Growing up in southcentral Pennsylvania, it was obvious that I would get lured into the Civil War hobby. And at the age of twelve, I found myself on an artillery crew, working an original twelve-pound howitzer. I was immediately hooked. It was my escape, my therapy. I could live another life for a weekend and so it made me want to dive deeper into the research and provide the best programming I could.

I believe that it was at that moment that I realized what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I wanted to teach our history but do it in ways which you couldn't get inside a public school classroom. It was that passion, that drive to do more and see more, that led me to take part in over 400 Civil War events in my life, and branch out to interpret six different time periods at the height of my time as a living historian. What drew me to the WWI era was finding out that my great-grandfather and great-great-uncle both served during the conflict. They were both drafted with my great-grandfather staying in the U.S. while my great-great-uncle, Remick Ambrose, served with the 314th Infantry, 79th Division. Remick would fight in the Meuse-Argonne and survive, and his story is what made me want to build an impression for WWI. It goes back to that connection that each interpreter should have with the past. In my case, it's family, which makes it a lot more personal.

How do you prepare an impression? Where does it originate? How do you build it? What do you look for, when trying to make it resonate for an audience.

Impressions begin in the books, on documentaries, in film, or even on video games. What catches your attention? What connects you to that era or life? What is the story that you can tell about that era? Living history is like a fingerprint; each of us does it differently. But what should be universal is getting the facts straight. So an impression has to start with curiosity. Then, after a fair amount of research, it must progress to material culture. What was the clothing like? What patterns, what materials? What did they eat, how did they sleep, etc.? It was through linking all of these things that I developed not only living history impressions but also living history programming. I have been fortunate to provide educational programming for thousands of students in public and private schools, the Boy Scouts of America, the National Park Service, the U.S. Army, and many more. Through all of this, I have learned that what resonates with an audience is a connection. If an interpreter is there for history, the audience will know. If they are there for their own, selfish reasons, the audience will find out about that too. It's why I often tell audiences to be passionate about something larger than yourself. But I like to maintain a welcoming atmosphere to my programming, in which all who wish to listen may do so.John Heckman 2John Heckman

What have you learned, especially from your younger audiences, about how history needs to be told to them? Living History breaks the standard teaching paradigm -- how is this tool best used?

- I have taken the idea of living history and produced an online, social media-based resource where others can learn history. This has gone over very well with younger generations. As of now, the online demographic following my brand (The Tattooed Historian) is closing in on 70% being between the ages of 16 and 40. So what this tells me is that new ways to get the history are needed. When I speak with school students, I often bring up the newest video games or movies which are historically-based. This is a connection point for us as we are inundated with popular culture references. So, instead of the old way of thinking, i.e. "Kids only want to play video games," how about we flip the script and use it as a teaching tool? In gaming for instance, what is correct about the game? What is not historically accurate? This sparks discussion and that is what we must do as historians. Nobody, including younger audiences, likes to be spoken to; it is folly to speak at an audience. I like to "go to" my audience, meaning what do they see in their day to day lives which can connect them to the past? It takes work, it takes an open mind, and it takes a true passion for living history to be successful. If a living historian can't connect to their audience, or only wants to talk at their audience, then they are just a person in old clothes. But when an interpreter is reaching out to their audience for input, providing hands-on activities with objects, giving good historical references, and providing a welcoming atmosphere to those in attendance, that is when they become successful.

In your view, what do we need to do to keep World War I from becoming a 'forgotten war' again, twenty years from now?

- I believe to ensure that World War I is not forgotten within our society, we must continue to support great historians who are leading the charge in the field. Historians and living history interpreters can do fantastic things to keep the conversation moving forward. Utilizing these educational opportunities in new ways needs to be the standard operating procedure now. History should not only be found in a classroom. History should be pointed out in our local areas. Many people say that all politics are local; so is history. If we can connect audiences to their local history, we can help them see their place in the world. The key point when it comes to understanding America in WWI is realizing that we are still a melting pot in society. Our A.E.F. was so very diverse in background, economics, religious beliefs, etc. We as a society are still like that. So let's use that as a connection point to the WWI generation. In an era where a social media platform can be used as a classroom, I believe we can tap into unlimited educational potential if we can only begin to think outside of the box. If textbooks do not get the point across to the next generation, perhaps it is time to try something else. I remember performing a WWII living history about fifteen years ago. A woman, perhaps in her mid-40s walked up to me and said, "So you're putting on a World War II display?" After confirming that and pointing a few things out, she said, "So if there was a World War II that means there was a World War I right?" So we must remember that it is not only one generation who may forget its history, it is an entire society. If the parents do not know, then the kids may not know. We must strive to place the historical narrative within the grasp of all of our peers. I believe if we do that, then we are on the right path.

John Heckman 3John Heckman (right) onstage with Sandra Pershing (at podium) for the announcement of the design of the new National World War I Memorial in Washington DC.