Rules and Regulations Governing Military Tattoo Placement

Monday 09th of February 2009 04:43:04 PM [Add To This Article]

Military men and women have been getting tattooed literally since the military was founded. Of course, in the nineteenth century, those getting military tattoos were nearly exclusively men. However, as times, technology and culture have changed, women now represent a large portion of the tattooed population. As tattooing became increasingly safe, attractive and popular, the United States military began to adopt a series of regulations to govern what types of tattoos its members could have. These regulations vary by division of the military and in many cases are highly subjective, which can be a benefit or detraction from their effectiveness.

All divisions of the military prohibit “obscene, racist, sexist or discriminatory tattoos.” This is both to protect military members’ ability to work together and to help keep the image of the military clean and reputable at home and abroad. Tattoos cannot show through any uniform, and they must not incorporate “military disrespect” in any way, as officials fear – and rightly so – that disorder and dissatisfaction expressed constantly by way of a tattoo can degrade the entire system and cause order and discipline to deteriorate dramatically.

In the United States Air Force, the regulations are pretty simple. In addition to the rules about tattoo design content and tattoo topic, air force tattoo designs, and indeed, any tattoo design worn by an air force member, must not exceed a quarter of the area of the body part where the tattoo is located. For example, if you wanted to get a back of the hand tattoo, it would need to be one fourth the size of the back of your hand or smaller. However, if you wanted to get a back tattoo, since your back will never be exposed when you are in uniform, the only concern there will be the content of the tattoo design and that your tattoo does not show through your dress-whites uniform. If the U.S. Air Force considers a tattoo to be too offensive or cover too much visible surface area, then the air force member in question must have the tattoo removed at a non-government facility at their own expense. Failure to do so will result in discharge.

The United States Army has recently revised its tattoo standards to accommodate the fact that nearly a third of people under thirty – its main recruiting class – have one or more tattoos. The army will accept routinely visible tattoo designs in areas like the back of the neck (behind the jawbone) and the backs of the hands as long as the tattoos are not considered “extreme” by the recruiting or the commanding officer. For women, facial tattooing is okay as long as the tattoos are in the form of relatively conservative permanent makeup tattoos. Because the army has no tattoo percentage policy like that of the air force, but rather relies on commanding officers and recruiters to make the call about what is extreme, soldiers should be very careful to document all approval of their tattoos since the evaluation process is somewhat subjective.

The United States Navy, which could be argued to be the birthplace of the military tattoo since sailors have been getting nautical tattoos and “travel marks” since time immemorial, actually has some pretty strict guidelines about how you can display your tattoos and what their content should be. Navy tattoo designs, and any other tattoo designs that naval officers and sailors bear, cannot be located on the head, face, neck or scalp. In addition, a tattoo design must not be “prejudicial to good order, discipline and morale” or bring discredit to the U.S. Navy in any way. However, since many sailors are tattooed before joining the navy or got a large number of tattoos before these regulations went into effect, many exemptions are granted each year.

As far as the U.S. Marine Corp is concerned, documentation and official approval is the most important thing when it comes to its members’ tattoos. Sleeve tattoos in particular are discouraged, but you can document official approval of your sleeve, particularly if you got it before 2007. However, the marines do not approve of head or neck tattoos, and the current rules state that no tattoos should be visible when the marine is wearing a t-shirt and shorts.



Military tattoos, tattooing in general, and military culture are all tightly linked. This makes regulation and supervision of tattoos even more controversial and complicated in this arena, particularly because most people consider their tattoos a form of personal expression that is protected by the Bill of Rights (the right to free speech and freedom of expression in particular). As a result, regulation of tattoo designs can be an extremely touchy subject to broach with a military member of any branch of the service who has devoted his or her life to defending these and other American rights. The military understands this and has tried to incorporate understanding for this sacrifice with their rules and regulations, but some branches have reached a “happy medium” more easily than others.

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