Got Ink?: Tattoos and the Military

Once upon a time, a service member being covered in tattoos wasn’t out of the realm of possibilities. Whether they were a soldier or a sailor, seeing men with ink on their arms, chests, and legs wasn’t uncommon. In fact, an entire style of tattooing became popular thanks in part to the military.

(TL;DR version:
“Norman Keith Collins (January 14, 1911 – June 12, 1973) was a prominent American tattoo artist, famous for his tattooing of sailors; he was also known as “Sailor Jerry”.”
-Wikipedia)

So when the powers that be came down hard on our tattooed service members a while back, it seemed almost like punishment to a lot of them for carrying on a tradition that had started years before they were out of diapers (or even a thought in some cases). For the most part, tattoo policies in the military have been the kind that made you go “well that makes sense”. There was the standard nothing offensive (sorry neo-Nazi’s, but y’all lost so give it up), no gang related ink (so if you have something you best get it removed) and nothing obscene or explicit. The rules for content are the same across all the branches. It’s when you get into location and size where things vary. I’m only familiar with the Army and the Air Force’s policy on tattoos, so those are really the only two branches on which I’m going to speak, but I’ll leave links at the end for the Marines and Navy (pretty sure the Coast Guard follows the same rules as the Navy because, let’s face it, the Coast Guard is the National Guard of the Navy).

Now, the Army policy has changed a few times over the years. Going from no tattoos on the hands or neck, to allowing it, then going back to not allowing it along with removing the ability to have sleeves on the arms and/or legs. If you already had these things prior to the regulations changing, you got to be grandfathered in so you didn’t have to have them removed… however you lost your ability to commission to officer status.

The most recent addendum to the regs stated that any tattoo visible while in a PT uniform must be smaller than the size of your palm and that there can be no more than four visible tattoos on your body. Again, if your ink violated this rule prior to the change, you’re okay but if you want to enlist and you violate this rule… it’s likely not going to happen. Sure, you can apply for a waiver but they issued this change for a reason. They were looking to cut down their numbers after the War in Iraq ended, and this was a sure fire way to slow people coming in as well as force a lot of guys out. Like I said, if you already had ink you weren’t getting kicked out but I know a lot of guys got upset over the rule change and left anyway.

Onto the Air Force. I feel like their policy is slightly more lax than the Army policy, but I don’t really know what percentage of exposed skin the palm of your hand takes up (x4)… so maybe that’s why. See, the Air Force policy is practically identical to the current Army policy except for the rule about how big or how many tattoos you can have on your exposed body while in a PT uniform. Above I linked an Army PT uniform. Now here are the Air Force PT uniforms.

Note: for whatever reason the Air Force doesn’t have just one image of both the short and long PT uniform together so this is the best I could find… and it’s funny so laugh at it. No need to get butthurt.

The Air Force’s rule for ink on exposed skin is that it cannot cover more then 25% of the exposed area. This means that if you have a line of text similar to this, you’re not completely out of the running. That is far less than 25% of his exposed arm but bigger than his palm (which would rule out the Army). The same would obviously apply for tattoos on your legs as well. Now I suppose I should clarify that “exposed skin” doesn’t count hands, neck, head or face. Aside from cosmetic tattoos (eyebrows, lipstick and eyeliner), anything on your hands or above the collar of your tee shirt disqualifies you. This includes your inner lip even though you can’t see it. It is possible to apply for a waiver for anything outside of where it’s supposed to be but actually getting that waiver depends on a lot of things. Pretty much, if you’re thinking of enlisting, talk to a recruiter about any current tattoos (or piercings) because they’re really the only ones who know what will and won’t be approved for certain.

I currently have two tattoos of my own with plans for eight plus more in the future. All of the ones I have plans for fit within the current Air Force Regulations, but if what was released by the Army on April First (it was really shit timing for them to say something then but they swear it was coincidence) is any indication, the tattoo policy across the board should be loosening back up again. I know SEVERAL ink’d soldiers who were ecstatic to hear about the change in policy that’s coming down the line.

“Society is changing its view of tattoos, and we have to change along with that … It makes sense. Soldiers have grown up in an era when tattoos are much more acceptable and we have to change along with that.”
-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno

So pretty much, sleeves are allowed in the Army again, which means my buddy from high school, who had plans to make a career out of the military, can now commission as an office if he wanted to. This is a great thing for the military if you ask me. Odierno is right about society becoming more accepting of tattoos, so it doesn’t make sense to keep to an archaic doctrine where ink = irresponsible. I know several single mothers who have tasteful tattoos and are probably some of the most responsible women I know (Hannah I’m looking at you). While tattoos might have distinguished who the heathens were once upon a time, that’s no longer the case and it’s about time that we stopped treating people as such, especially those who willingly do the job of a soldier or an airman.

edit;; totally forgot the links to the Navy and Marines policies. My bad guys. For good measure, here are the links for the Army and Air Force too. The Army link doesn’t reflect the changes that the SMA talked about in the article above because they’re not in effect yet. But like they said, they expect them to change in the near future.
Navy Tattoo Policy
Army Tattoo Policy
Air Force Tattoo Policy
Marine Corps Tattoo Policy (I couldn’t get the office Marine Corps .PDF link to work so this will have to do for now)
Coast Guard Tattoo Policy (because apparently the Coast Guard policy is different than the Navy policy. All the other branches use a crew neck tee shirt whereas the Coast Guard uses a v-neck… because they’re gay… kidding… kinda… okay totally kidding)

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