From tribal bands to memorials and “meat tags,” military service members love their permanent ink. While historically the service branches themselves have sought to limit how tatted-up troops can get – and particularly, how much tattooed flesh is visible in uniform – recent recruiting shortages have led to the loosening of some of these restrictions. But unclear communication about new standards has resulted in a confusing mess, a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) finds, and the services need to fix it.
GAO, which provides oversight authority for the entire U.S. government, was ordered to study military tattoo policies by the House Armed Services Committee, which had expressed concern on how existing regulations might be harming recruiting and retention. In particular, GAO found that the military ran into trouble in places where it created room for exceptions to rules through waiver authority, but then failed to communicate the possibility of such waivers to the troops who might have use for them.
“Most armed forces allow waivers (i.e., exceptions to tattoo policies) for certain unauthorized tattoos, usually related to their size or location, for recruits and current service members,” GAO stated in the report. “However, some of the armed forces’ relevant policies do not directly address whether waivers for unauthorized tattoos are available for recruits […] In addition, most of the armed forces’ tattoo policies do not include clear information on the tattoos or individuals eligible for waivers, requirements for waiver requests and conditions for approval, or specifics on who has authority to approve tattoo waivers.”
Military tattoo rules in one graphic
To understand just how far the military has come on tattoo tolerance, check out below the comprehensive graphic GAO created. It shows side-by-side depictions of areas of the body that were off-limits to tattoos prior to 2020, and the much more limited restrictions now in effect. The graphic also contrasts the various services’ policies on tattoos.
Under old regulations, every service prohibited tattoos on the head and face; most services substantially restricted ink on the hands and fingers. All services had limitations on how much ink could show on the arms, torso, and legs, though no service completely barred tattoos on these areas.
Under new policies, four out of six services permit tattoos on the neck, with some limitations. Previous limitations on the arms, legs and torso have been lifted for all the services. (The Marine Corps, the most prominent holdout against tattoo sleeves, changed its policy to permit them in October 2021). All services now permit tattoos on the fingers, with some limitations, and three of the six now allow hand tattoos as well. With only head and face tattoos still banned across the board, it’s clear that advocates for ink are winning their fight over the more conservative military establishment.
That said, some services have come farther than others. The Marine Corps, which takes special pride in its professional image, has historically been among the most conservative on the subject, limiting size and placement of tattoos and restricting certain special duties, such as embassy security guard, to those without large visible ink designs.
In 2017, then-Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller told me in an interview that he didn’t plan to make the tattoo policy more permissive.
“This is not an episode of [History Channel show] Vikings, where we’re tattooing our face. We’re not a biker gang, we’re not a rock and roll band. We’re not [Maroon 5 lead singer] Adam Levine,” Neller said. “You can get 70 percent of your body covered with ink and still be a Marine. Is that enough?”
Neller did include a caveat at the time, however, saying that if recruiters told him tattoo rules were standing in the way of making mission, he’d listen. Despite easing many restrictions, the Corps still has more rules than many of the other services, prohibiting neck and hand tattoos across the board, limiting finger tattoos to one on a ring finger, and reserving the right to restrict tattoos at “high-visibility” job postings.
On the other side of the spectrum, Space Force – the newest service – is among the most lenient, allowing a neck tattoo (while its sister service the Air Force does not), permitting a single tattoo per hand, and doing away with any other size or placement regulations. The Navy is alone among the services in having no size and placement limitations for hand and finger tattoos.
Making sense of waiver rules
According to GAO, every service except the Navy allows recruits and current service members to request waivers for certain tattoo restrictions. However, the watchdog organization said, the services don’t consistently lay out the possibility of such waivers or the process for getting them.
“[The armed forces’] respective policies generally do not document this possibility clearly,” it states. “Clear guidance on waivers for unauthorized tattoos would provide consistent information about requirements for waiver requests and conditions for approval. This could clarify whether tattoo prevalence affects future or continued military service.”
Currently, all services offer recruit waivers for tattoo rules, although the Air Force and Space Force limit such waivers to “exceptionally qualified recruits in critical, understaffed career fields.” None of the six services, however, outlines how to request waiver approval and what conditions must be met, GAO found. The Navy is the only service that does not offer waivers for current troops. Again, however, the other services fail to specify how to apply for these waivers, and none are clear about which tattoos might qualify for them.
Regardless of service, however, the military is clear on one point: recruits and troops should not expect waivers for tattoos with gang symbols, those representing gang affiliations, or any others that might have a negative effect on military order and discipline.
Does it make a difference?
All the military services have acknowledged their having a hard time making mission this year as the eligible population shrinks, and long-range economic and pandemic effects are felt. But how much do tattoo restrictions factor in?
GAO cites 2014 and 2020 studies by the Defense Department’s Joint Military Advertising, Market Research and Studies arm (JAMRS), which found that easing restrictions would increase the recruiting pool by about six percent in the 16-24 demographic. The Air Force, Navy, and Coast Guard all told GAO they collected data on waiver requests and disqualifications and used that data to inform policy.
The new report doesn’t fully make clear, however, what the impact of clearer waivers would be now that rules have been substantially relaxed. In 2017, Marine Corps Times reported that 33 troops were denied re-enlistment packages over the course of a year due to their ink. It’s likely most would be retained under the new rules.
More tattoo policy changes may be on the way
The military services each generally agreed with GAO’s recommendation that they clarify the information they provide about available tattoo waivers and how to apply for them. The Coast Guard specifically stated that it planned to update its own guidance and requirements by the end of November.
The Navy may be on the verge of rolling out a more substantial change, however. The GAO report said that, while the service doesn’t now offer waivers for current service members, “Navy officials indicated possible changes to the tattoo policy for service members are under consideration.”
If you’re a sailor with a prohibited head, neck, or face tattoo, perhaps you should stay tuned.
Read more from Sandboxx News
- Can the Naval Special Warfare’s new command fix the problems of the Navy’s elite?
- Letters to Loretta: Preparing for the inevitable
- Why the military has an office dedicated to tracking the world’s biggest blocks of ice
- We swore a blood oath: Former CIA officer reflects on al-Zawahiri killing
- Ready for a new tattoo? The Air Force now has its own tattoo shop