Tat-us Quo: Despite Strict New Army Rules, Other Branches Keep Tattoo Policies Intact

The Air Force, Navy and Marines have no plan to change ink guidelines

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Tim Wimborne / Reuters

A tattooed soldier from the U.S. Army's 1st Platoon, 18th Engineer Company, Task Force Arrowhead, rests at Forward Operating Base Mizan after completing a route clearance patrol in Afghanistan's Zabul Province in this May 24, 2012 file photo.

Tattoos are arguably the most intense form of self-expression, statements permanently etched into one’s skin. But in the military, where everyone wears the same uniform, tattoos make individuals stand out, and now the Army is trying to make noticeable ink a thing of the past, banning tattoos below the knee or the elbow.

With the change, the Army will have the strictest tattoo policy of the four branches of service. The entire military prohibits racist, extremist or gang-related tattoos, but each branch has its own rules. TIME reached out to the other services to see if they have any plans to change their policies.

In the Air Force, which updated its standards in 2011, tattoos cannot be “excessive”, meaning they can’t cover more than 25 percent of an exposed body part (like a forearm) when wearing any uniform. During the review leading to the policy update, the Air Force added a measuring tool so commanders can determine if a tattoo is considered excessive. A spokeswoman said the Air Force is not considering any additional changes in the near future.

The Marines last revised their tattoo policy in 2010. Commissioned and warrant officers can only have four tattoos or brands visible when wearing a physical training uniform (shorts and a t-shirt). For enlisted Marines, they can’t have tattoos on their hands, fingers, wrists or inside their mouths, and any tattoo visible from a physical training uniform can’t be larger than a fist. One of the Marine Corps’ considerations when they reviewed the tattoo policy is the “assignability” of individual Marines–they serve as embassy guards around the world, in addition to other highly visible assignments. “We’re confident that the current policy both ensures’ Marines worldwide assignability and protects our high standards of appearance and bearing,” Capt. Ty Balzer, a media officer for Headquarters Marine Corps, said in an email.

Before 2003, the Navy also had the “25 percent rule”, but updated its standards in 2006 to allow tattoos visible when wearing a uniform shirt as long as they are smaller than an extended hand. That means sailors can get all the tattoos they want on their torsos, but nothing can be visible through the white uniform. The Navy’s policy is the oldest on the books, but an official from the Navy Office of Information said there are no immediate plans to change the regulations.

The Army’s policy change has been in the works for some time. In 2006, needing more potential recruits at the height of the Iraq War, the Army began to allow tattoos on the hands and back of the neck. But now with the war in Iraq over and the one in Afghanistan winding down, the Army is poised to trim 80,000 troops in five years. With a smaller force, they can afford to be more selective, and after being promoted in 2011, Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond Chandler began speaking about a sterner tattoo policy. “The appearance of tattoos detracts from a uniformed service,” Chandler told soldiers at Fort Jackson, South Carolina last year, arguing that ink draws attention to the individual. “You are part of something larger.”

In online forums and blogs, where troops vent much of their frustration, the new tattoo policy has been met with a largely negative reaction.

Troops (often using colorful language) are worried that the move signals a return to the dreaded “garrison Army”, a force that, in the absence of a shooting war, focuses on seemingly trivial aspects of soldiering. Some commentors argue that troops should be judged by their abilities and performance, not their tattoos, while others say that the Army brass needs to focus on more pertinent issues like prevention of suicides and sexual assaults.

For many troops in all of the services, tattoos are more than just a public statement. During the wars of the past decade, troops have often used ink as a form of expression honoring lost comrades.

They have dog tags of fallen brothers inked into their calves, initials of platoon mates with the dates they were killed, and thousands of subtle reminders of the people they fought beside, immortalized on the skin of those still living. Soldiers can continue to do so, but they may want to carefully consult the uniform manual first.

19 comments
LarryMcCammon
LarryMcCammon

Dear Time Magazine,

There are 5 armed services in the United States..."With the change, the Army will have the strictest tattoo policy of the four branches of service."  Hint:  been in existence since 1790... Semper Paratus.

delta212cpd
delta212cpd

Good policy. Suprised the Army, the lowest class of all armed services, is the strictest. It sure isn't in the quality of people it tends to get  with it's standards so low they may as well be underground. Of course I don't speak of all Army personnel, however, if you can't do "anything" else.....you can alway's join the Army.

driftn3rd
driftn3rd

john lozinski you dont know what yur talking about and guess how many americans are going to be rejected by the army people that want to do better in life and serve their country, its ok the regulations they already have no hands no neck or face thats fine. all i know that wen the army need more troops its gonna be to late for us because it takes time to be soldier.

vanishingtheory
vanishingtheory

As much as i dont agree with this being the fact that if someone is risking their lives for the right to have the freedom to be able to have tattoos its great for my business. I work with Tattoo Vanish which is an all natural tattoo removal method cheaper and more effective than laser. There's technicians all over the world me personally i'm based out of Miami FL and have already begun working on clients that are trying to join the military. Check out the work on instagram @vanishing_theory. 

JohnLozinski
JohnLozinski

Low class humans revert to tattoos to bring attention to them selves. Tattoos are

a sign of a civilization that is becoming degenerate. It signifies the fall of the USA just like 

lions and Gladiators were the start of the fall of Rome.

PatriotVet76
PatriotVet76

It is difficult for senior officer and enlisted personnel, older than 35, to accept body art as no longer a fad, but a trend.  

Since military personnel often serve in international assignments, where body art is less accepted, and could offend, the policy may be necessary.

tat2x
tat2x

Many law enforcement and health care agencies already have restrictive tattoo policies in place.  We've seen a huge upward trend in the sales of our Ink Armor sleeves ( http://www.tat2x.com/covering-tattoos-s/1814.htm ) as a direct result of these policies.  Look for more conservative policies as the pressure to recruit lessens with the exit from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

JConabicycle
JConabicycle

@LarryMcCammon  There are only four Armed Service Departments, though.   And two of them fall under the Department of the Navy....

JConabicycle
JConabicycle

@JohnLozinski  If that photograph in your avatar is you, I can tell from the fat on your face and neck and that enormous double chin  that you wouldn't qualify for any of the services as a consequence of obesity, so I'm not sure why you're being so judgmental about these young people and their tattoos.   


Obese people, like yourself,  are usually unfit as well, so you would be unlikely to pass the physical readiness test either.   Your poor command of English grammar, as evidenced by your post with regard to this subject, makes me believe that you'd probably come in around CAT III on the ASVAB.   


 Here's the bottom line, Johnny--you can just go marching home, because no branch of the military wants the likes of you.  You are NOT QUALIFIED.

TomMelin
TomMelin

@JohnLozinski  you are a truly stupid, stupid man. Ugly, fat boys with low self esteem try to be wall flowers so they DON'T get noticed.....sound familiar JOHN??? 

SralRolyat
SralRolyat

@JohnLozinski

So you, a man that has never served In defense of this nation, blame soldiers who have tattooed the names of their fallen brothers on their arms for the decline of America?

At what point did we decline? In WWII when soldiers tattooed their the names of their fallen brothers, the names of their wives, children, or girlfriends they left at home, their units, their allegiance to the US? Is then when we declined as a nation?

Was it WWI when servicemembers would get tattoos in order to have documented identifying marking on their service documents so their bodies would return home if they were to fall in battle?

Was it the US civil war when the US tattoo industry boomed due to demand by veterans that wanted to commemorate their service and their allegiance to the side for which they fought?

Was it during the dawning years of our nation when US sailors tattooed themselves in order to create evidence of identity as American sailors to discourage British impressment?

When exactly did tattooing mark the decline of America? Before we even emerged as a nation?

Next time you wonder who is "low class". Look in the mirror. Not only do you lack the honor and sense of duty to serve yourself but you lack the basic civic responsibility to know the history of our nation and the nature of those who fought and died to forge it.

TishaStahl
TishaStahl

@JohnLozinski You might want to do a little more research before you sit there and say, "Low class humans revert to tattoos to bring attention to them selves." If you were to actually understand the tattoo world. Then and only then, you will understand that tattoos are simple skin-art that expresses who we are. A memorial moment in time, a past loved one, a brother/sister, son/daughter, etc. What you are not understanding is that your memory will fade away, but a picture can say a thousand words. So next time you want to call someone low-class how about calling yourself that, since your well-known society fell long ago by the Americans!



539killr
539killr

Go get lit you fat ass german candle!!

JConabicycle
JConabicycle

@PatriotVet76  This is entirely true.   Of course, if we ever get in another shooting war and need many butts on the bus to boot camp, we will find a way to overlook things once again.  


This change to policy is about force shaping.  The military is drawing down and the Army is taking the biggest hit.   Tens of thousands need to go out the door this year alone, and they have to slow accessions so there can be some promotion opportunity.   People who are "grandfathered" as a result of the tattoo policy know full well that they either need to get rid of those damn things before the next photograph is taken for their promotion,  or they need to make other plans.    


There are also a lot of people who are going to be very surprised when they take their next PT tests, at how picky the testers will get about certain elements of the test.   They are looking for excuses--any excuse at all--to get RID of people.    This is why the Army made that bone headed decision to target African American women's HAIR--they hoped that by making the hair requirements difficult to impossible, that women would either give up and leave, or get "written up" for  disobeying a regulation.   Fortunately, that order was stayed because it was...what's the word?... oh, yeah--RACIST.   

JohnLozinski
JohnLozinski

@SralRolyat @JohnLozinskiI served 20 years I am retired now. I did very well in the Army.
Probably because I did not have any tattoos!

JConabicycle
JConabicycle

@JohnLozinski  Was that back when they let obese people serve, and didn't have a phsyical readiness test?    You wouldn't fit through the recruiter's door!   


Anyone can "claim" that they served, but I don't believe you.   No one who served would denigrate fellow service personnel the way you are doing here--unless, of course, you were kicked out.  Then you might harbor a bit of resentment.  


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