BILLINGS — Getting inked up for a good cause. This weekend in Billings, the third annual Big Sky Tattoo Expo is underway. Proceeds from the event will be donated to Warrior Wishes Montana, a local nonprofit working to bring the high rate of veteran suicides in Montana down.
It’s a permanent way to make a difference.
"Everything I make off the expo I donate to Warrior Wishes Montana because I make good money at my shop and I’m a disabled Iraqi vet," said Cooper, a tattoo artist, on Saturday. "I want to be able to give that handout."
This weekend at the Metrapark Expo Center, located at 308 Sixth Avenue North, a special event—organized by Cooper.
"I’ve been happy to pitch in every time,” said Brian Mueller, who was receiving a tattoo from Cooper at the expo, on Saturday. “I’m addicted to the pain."
"Miguel from Warrior Wishes does amazing things with veterans every year. I want to be able to give back to that to help veterans out," Cooper said. "They donate 96 cents on the dollar back to veterans, which is amazing. So when I found that out, all the good stuff they did, and I’ve known Miguel for a while. It was just kind of a no-brainer for me."
The local Billings nonprofit works to bring the high rate of veteran suicides in Montana down and was founded by Miguel Gonzalez in 2015.
"We’re trying to combat the 22 a day, and if they don’t know what that is, it’s the veteran's suicide rate," Gonzalez said in a recent interview. "Everywhere in the states and this country, the numbers seem to be going down except in Montana.”
According to the 2022 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, in 2020, the suicide rate for veterans was 57.3% greater than for non-veterans.
That's something Cooper, a vet himself, knows all too well.
“When I came back from Iraq, when I was in the service and I got (a medical evacuation) home, I didn’t have a lot of support when I got out. That kind of bugged me," Cooper said. “When I got out, I was one of those soldiers. I was going through a real rough time when I got out. I ended up in the hospital a few times from suicide. I have a lot of first-hand experience with the suicide rate. There’s a lot of people in my unit that died of suicide when we got home. And then I, fortunately, wasn’t one of them, but I was in that same boat when I got home."
Cooper says the expo serves as a reminder for vets to check in on one another. For non-veterans, it's a chance to show appreciation for the sacrifice so many have made.
“It takes 2 seconds to be nice," Cooper said. "No one knows what you’re going through and a lot of people don’t speak up on it, especially men. Especially male soldiers. That’s all I’d like to add, is it takes 2 seconds to be kind."
For those attending the expo, it’s a way to give back.
“It’s amazing, and our vets need support. They don’t get enough," said Charlie Wheeler, a body piercer attending the event from The Temple Decor in Kalispell, on Saturday. “Like I said, they don’t get the support they need. We’re asking them to do an unthinkable act and then they don’t get support when they get home. Like, we have to help in any way we can. Any program, big or small, that can help heroes. They need it."
The event will continue on Sunday from Noon to 10 p.m.
“Today is all about everybody getting some really cool tattoos and really good food from the food trucks. We’ve got Battle of the Bands tonight, so we got a bunch of Billings local bands competing to see who’s the best," Cooper said. "It’s about having a good time, having fun, getting some tattoos. It’s the one thing you’re going to take to the grave with you. In the end, we get to help veterans. That’s just the biggest plus."
To learn more about the Big Sky Tattoo Expo, click here.
To learn more about Warrior Wishes Montana, click here.