Another recurring line of questioning in future military personnel is the issue of tattoos. We live in an era that emphasizes the importance of expression that takes on the form of what previous generations considered “mutilation”. Whether or not that kind of accusation holds any weight is normally left up to the individual.

But for those joining the military, it’s a different story. Although there exists a long history between the military and tattoos, all U.S. military branches have standards about where, what, how much, and how many their members can have prior to enlistment, and during service. These regulations ensure that all personnel maintain appearance standards for the given branch,  much in the same way each branch maintains standards concerning uniforms and uniform appearance. In addition, as it applies to the content of the artwork, military regulation on tattoos is also in place to minimize the establishment of unnecessary divisions or senseless conflict between service members.

As is often the case, each branch has its own definition of what amount of ink is acceptable, as well as the content and location. During MEPS, recruits will be given a full physical to verify that he or she is fit for duty. During this time, you will be looked over by a military doctor, who will assess if your artwork violates any of the military tattoo policy.

 

Navy Tattoo Policy

According to Navy regulations, enlistment standards are based on four criteria,

Content: Obvious as it may seem, the navy doesn’t want its sailors walking around covered in images of swastikas, gang signs, or anything else that might jeopardize unit cohesion. Basically, if a tattoo pisses people off, or has the potential to piss people off because it’s considered divisive, incendiary or extreme, the navy doesn’t want it.

As an extension, if it’s generally considered obscene, or explicit (sex, drugs, violence, rock n’ roll, and all that), it’s also violating policy. Get it covered up with something else if you’re serious about joining.

 Location: The second criteria in tattoo policy, as long as content is approved, is the location. As mentioned, the U.S. military is pretty big on appearance (why do you think every mishap/accident is identified as a “training exercise” when it ends up on CNN?). If a tattoo can’t be covered up by standard uniform items, then it is considered excessive and the candidate is ineligible unless a waiver is procured. In short, tattoos on the head, face, neck, and sleeved arms are considered against tattoo policy. Fortunately, this waiver is generally not hard to get.

Size: Every branch, the Navy included, has at least one short sleeved uniform. As such, the navy’s policy on tattoo policy on the arms is pretty straightforward, albeit conservative: a tattoo should be no larger than your open hand. All others will require a waiver for entrance.

Cosmetic: I don’t know many males who have ended up needing to pay attention to this regulation, but the Navy does allow cosmetic tattoos. Eyebrow tattoos in place of natural eyebrows are acceptable, provided that they are naturally colored and not purple, pink, etc and otherwise draw unnecessary attention to the future recruit. Lipstick tattoo standards are similar: if it complements the individual and is natural colored, it’s considered acceptable.

 

Army Tattoo Policy

According to somewhat recent changes in Army regulations, tattoo policy is slightly more relaxed than the Navy’s policy although both were previously identical. Tattoos in the Army are now considered okay on the hands and back of the neck as long as they are not “extremist, indecent, sexist, or racist.”

As for the rest of the, here’s what is against the army’s tattoo policy:

-Anything anywhere that’s considered extremist, indecent, sexist or racist. Like what? Racial slurs, masochistic garbage, things of that nature. I won’t cite examples here, but you get the idea.

-Tattoos associated with groups known to engage in extreme behavior or propagate any kind of racial, gender, ethnic, etc intolerance or hatred. (KKK, Black Panthers, PETA, Nazi tattoos, etc)

-Sexist tattoos related to a philosophical stance that degrades others based on gender.

If you’re enlisting in the army and happen to have tattoos that are in violation of the army’s tattoo policies, like the Navy, you may request a waiver from your recruiter. Chances are pretty good that a counseling session will be in order if it’s approved, though. And while a commander can’t order a soldier to have a tattoo removed, chances are good your chain of command would recommend it.

Marine Tattoo Policy

Unlike the Army’s progressively relaxing policies, Marine tattoo policy only appears to be getting more restrictive. In 2010, the Marine’s added a few specifics to existing regulations with the aim of getting realigned with their “traditional values“; in a nutshell, the new revisions specify how much ink is too much ink in order to maintain an appearance of high standards of professionalism.

The following are considered unacceptable:

-Nothing new to the table here: anything considered sexist, racist, extremist, vulgar, eccentric, or otherwise offensive is prohibited.

-No ink is permitted on the head, neck, hands, fingers and wrists. But also now prohibited are full, 1/2, and 1/4 sleeves (if visible in issued PT [physical training] gear) and tattoos on the inside of the mouth. Tattoos visible in the PT uniform must be no larger than Marine’s hand.

-Enlisted Marines who had sleeves prior to the revision, while they can still be promoted and continue service, are no longer eligible for enlisted-to-officer conversion programs, recruiting duty, or Marine Corps Security Guard duty.

-Tattoo bands, either partial or full, are authorized for enlisted Marines, as long as they occupy a maximum of 1/4 of the arm or leg.

Air Force Tattoo Policy

As a part of Air Force uniform regulation, airmen are expected to adhere to the military’s strictest tattoo policies, which require members of the Air Force to pay for tattoo removal out-of-pocket, at a location other than DoD facilities. If an airman opts to keep the prohibited tattoo/s, it could result in it could result in disciplinary action; anything from reprimand to administrative separation. Prior to joining the Air Force, candidates for enlistment will be expected to have “excessive” tattoos removed.

-Again, anything considered generally offensive (racist, sexist, etc), as with all other branches will prevent enlistment, unless a waiver is procured.

-The Air Force defines “excessive” as any tattoos covering more than 25% of the exposed body part, and go to great lengths to describe the process of determining what’s “excessive” in great detail here (p22)

-Cosmetic tattoos are also acceptable when joining the Air Force, at least for women. Like the Navy, they must be moderate, and look natural to be considered acceptable for enlistment.

With any luck, you learned something cool.

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