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.