Photography Thursday, March 16th Words by: Adam Knight

'Death doesn't worry me but this was something else': a Hereford tattooist in ISIS country

Photography Thursday, March 16th

'Death doesn't worry me but this was something else': a Hereford tattooist in ISIS country

This article contains some graphic content. Out of respect for those involved it has been left in.

The latest generation of iPhone was released without much fanfare. It underwhelmed slightly, left in the shadow of the great technological strides made by previous models.

And yet one feature has captured the imagination of its users. When you take a photo, the phone's internal memory saves a few milliseconds prior to its capture so that when you view it, the scene briefly comes alive before forever freezing in time.

This function is novel when viewing duelling duck-faces in provincial nightclubs. It becomes both transformative and gut-wrenching when the image brought to life is an Iraqi child, spread naked on a makeshift hospital bed under halogen lights, his left leg stripped to the bone by an IED, planted under a playground swing by ISIS forces as they ran from a bombed-out ghost town of their own creation.

"His friend died with his intestines hanging out," Pete told me, his reddened eyes fixed on the five-inch screen.

"This was the lad stood next to him when it went off."

He swiped on to another image and again the boy moved. And again.


It took less than 10 minutes before Pete Masters offered me a beer. It took me five more to realised I should have accepted.

His story, like any good one, has no clear entry point. Pete has the distinct quality on being not just in this world, but of it. From somewhere between its very fibres. He has lived, it seems, many lifetimes - one of which as the owner of Skinzophrenic Tattoos on Aubrey Street, Hereford.

"I was a firefighter in New York, I was an embalmer in Greece. I’ve been an undertaker.

"Death doesn’t worry me. I can be around it. But this was something else. This time, this trip, it was hard. I don’t know for sure if I’ll go back.

"If you’re an adult, whether it’s right or wrong, you know what you signed up for. But these kids, they’re being born in to this."

Pete is 49 and this was his fifth trip to Iraq. He owns a Skinzophrenic Erbil, an ink shop in the Kurdish heartland of Northern Iraq. It was set up, in part, thanks to the kind of connections one makes in Hereford.

Erbil is a city of nearly two million people and home to the first Kurdish side to play in the Asian Champions League. Dodge Chargers roar through the streets. Its relative religious freedom has long made it a home to Kurdish Christians and for that same reason placed it directly in the sights of ISIS generals leading massed ranks through Northern Iraq in the tanks left behind by the Iraqi army.

The ISIS mortars and massacres have, up until now, fallen short of Ebril's city gates. 

Daesh’s war machine - now grinding to a halt in Mosul - had run into Kurdish forces fighting for their corner of the world long before Black Flags flew over Iraq. Up there, they like their moustaches and they like their cigarettes. And as ISIS repeatedly found out, they weren’t going to give up either without a fight. 

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Pete told me how the threat of evacuation from Erbil hung in the air throughout his trip last month, but the phonecall never came.

While sanctuary is a relative term in the region, it was in a hospital in Erbil, just over an hour from Mosul, where medics two weeks ago saw the symptoms of chemical warfare as fighters were brought in from the neighbouring city, straight from the frontline of the war against ISIS.

In Erbil they still have hospitals and they have volunteer medics, some who have paid their own way from America to help. Their hospitals also have volunteer bodyguards armed with automatic weapons, some who have also paid their own way from America to help. 

It was shuttling between the two once-great cities of Erbil and Mosul, living with uncertainty but without the constant crack of sniper fire, where Pete and his business partner found the faces of those holding back the Black Flag of Daesh. And when Pete met the children who would inherit whatever is left when the dust settles, he took their picture.


It was the first time in two years the pair had returned to Erbil.

They had a third business partner in Iraq, Ahmad Al-Ani. He was handsome, vibrant character born in to the region’s political kingmakers, the Barzani family. Sixty miles from one of the most brutal conflicts the region had seen in years, he would drive Lamborginis through the same dusty streets as armoured vehicles.

He was comfortable with Armani jackets and with assault rifles, part of emerging generation who had not forgotten culture amongst a generation of conflict.

And it was Ahmad's close relationship with two men from Hereford which meant they could get access to the areas "even the Regiment couldn’t get to".

This most recent visit was to pay their last respects to Ahmad. With a knowing and painful irony, Pete explained how his business partner was gunned down not in Mosul, not at the hands of ISIS snipers or roadside car-bombs, but inside Reina, an Istanbul nightclub, minutes in to the new year, by a random shooter dressed as Santa Claus.

Before the attack - one of the worst mass shootings Turkey has ever seen, claiming the lives of 38 people - Ahmad had been a young prince in a failed state.

Stories surround his father, with whose blessing Pete was able to move easily among the Peshmerga, the Kurdish army.

In one group photo an Iraqi Special Forces unit is caught between poses, relaxing in plastic chairs, smoking and killing the long hours between contact with the enemy. One man is alone in his poised and unflinching intensity, eyes down the barrel of the camera, staring from beneath a thick-set brow.

"I’ve been to jail. And there are guys you don’t mess with," Pete said. "He was a guy you didn’t mess with."

Shortly before Pete’s arrival in the region, the story goes, Ahmad's father confronted a man who repeatedly refused to conduct himself in a manner deemed appropriate to the community. It was violent, it was bloody, and it was in the middle of a public bar.

When the police called the next day, he asked if they were coming to his house. 'Because I am not coming to you', he said.

The authorities, apparently, felt the same.

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Like ISIS before them the Iraqi army takeover houses in remote villages and small towns long since abandoned, using them as a temporary base and on occasion, an improvised prison.

Pete was shown to two rooms, in each was a captured enemy combatant.

"They weren’t too chatty. You could tell they had been beaten pretty bad. They were ISIS. But they were young," Pete said, his face twisting up at this point, as it often did when talking about those born in to this, too young to wear a uniform or too young to know what wearing a uniform meant.

"This is what they do. They roll though a place and leave it with nothing but killing and rape and torture, take all its men and leave boys in charge with nothing but this blanket of fear that hangs over the place, and the threat of them returning.

"These two were ISIS, but they weren’t ISIS-ISIS."

Those that were had been strung up on the front of vehicles, said Pete, some without the limbs they were born with. This is a world twisted far beyond the concepts of guilt and innocence that you can come home to in the UK.

"This one little girl in Mosul, she was shy," said Pete.

"On the streets kids would walk up to you, put out their fingers in the peace sign, smiling at you. They’ll be gunfire two streets down, but they know your with the Iraqi Army, they know you’re safe. You’ll did out some sweets for them. But this one girl, she stood aside.

"Then when you saw her smile, you could see all her front teeth had been knocked out.

"These people were once neighbours. And then some day it all changed. ISIS did not have to do what they did. They raped and they ruined. They will strap bombs to kids. They would tear it all down and walk away without a thought.

"I could have killed a man, but that’s not me. If you wanted to you could. I’m a Christian – people might say I’m totally hypocritical Christian, I drink and I smoke, I’ve done drugs – but I’m a Christian and I have a strong belief in God. I’m not about taking human life.

"There were times out there I was scared more than I ever have been. After five days going to the frontline I was ready to get out. For these people this was their home, their blood."

In another group photo Pete shows me, taken at a Peshmerga outpost in 2015, he, Ahmad and their leather-jacketed fixer sit in amongst another military unit. Less than a month later, all but three of that unit were beheaded in an ISIS raid.

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If the cost of life is forever weighed against risk, or against retribution, the hand of ISIS rests on the scales, even in the relative haven of Erbil. Bars - bars like the one Ahmad’s father visited - are shot up over arguments to the point where its occurrence is unremarkable - "You’re drinking and you notice your arm’s getting wet because last night the windows have been blown out by someone’s AK."

It’s a reality only slightly more surprising than the fact that there are bars. And clubs, and a nightlife. It’s not like Hereford, Pete tells me, but it’s a lively scene in its way.

Life endures, and as long as it does it, people will find a way to grab a beer or some fags to take the edge off.


Sleeping on the ground with his boots on and his gun loaded, Pete would catch a Humvee into Mosul, sniper fire thudding off the vehicle’s armour plating as the sun rose above the bombed-out city.

Before he left Hereford he made a will detailing what would happen to his shops, his gold bars, his three Omegas. He had to write the names of his children and sign it before leaving.

"The Iraqi Special Forces soldiers are 24 years old," Pete said, the same age as one of his children.

Childhood in Mosul is a fleeting concept. The smiling groups in 90s football gear play among empty houses and dirtroads, and no longer flinch at the sound of a car bomb.

Yet even they play an unintentional part in this all-consuming conflict.

In one shot, a group of lads, no older than 12, mug for the camera. It captures a moment of two-toned humanity, of fun and fraternity. And yet to a military eye it reveals something entirely different and more dangerous. The tallest of the group, smiling, has his hand jammed in to his jacket pocket, his elbow held at an unnatural angle.

"What’s he got in his pocket? – could be a gun. That was my fixer’s first reaction when he saw the picture," Pete said.

On such fine lines, decisions are made by men with guns.

In another image, taken by Pete from a moving car, he swung around his long lens camera, training it on a young family on a nearby doorstep. What it captured was innate reaction of a family to a man in body armour aiming something at them. The mother had hid, the daughter’s eyes squinted with fear, and the young boy, no older than those mugging to the camera in the previous shot, had stepped in front of all of them, defiant and undaunted.

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Since he has returned home to Hereford, Pete has struggled to sleep. As any squaddie will tell you, coming home means more than catching a plane.

In his West Street studio he has hung blown-up prints from his last two trips, the black and white eyes of a Kurdish child looking down on him from the bare brick wall. The soldiers he spent time with have since FaceTimed him, despite the fact he barely speaks the language.

After his 2015 trip – which produced another of the photos hung on the tattoo studio wall, a stunning picture of a mother and daughter under the canvas of a refugee-issue tent, half-mile from a five-star hotel – Pete completed a degree in photography at Hereford College of Arts.

In spite of his previously-uttered doubts about returning, you can tell he has already become restless.

"I get bored," he told me, before launching into his idea of going out and shooting the female-only wing of the Peshmerga.

"They are notoriously hard to get to, like shoot-Westerners-on-site hard. But I promise you, it’s impossible not to be in total awe of these women.

"I went out last time, because of Ahmad. But I trained to be a war photographer. The tipping point for me to go back out to the front this time was that I wanted to see the enemy."

When he says this, he explains, he is talking of the moral enemy, an Old Testament evil, not a flag or uniform.

"This situation is no longer about religion, it’s past that. There’s this spiritual element to the war. It’s about what man will do to another man. As a red-blooded war photographer how am I not going to go there?"

Pete has battled addiction. He has lived on both sides of the law and through a childhood that engendered a natural empathy to those brought up without the structure.

For now at least it seems he is destined to continue driving full-speed down roads to places everyone else is driving away from.

"Saves having to carpool," he said.


Skinzophrenic Tattoos will host its 4 Year Anniversary // Art + Photography Exhibition from March 18. The show is a collaboration with artist Paul Crow, and Pete's photos from Iraq will be on display. Prints will also be available for purchase. More info here.


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