Military Tattoo Policy

January 3, 2023
Military Tattoo Policy

So you’re interested in joining the military but you’re concerned about whether or not your tattoos will inhibit your recruitment. Or, you are already enlisted and wanting to get some cool new ink? While there are restrictions that are specific to each branch, the rules regarding tattoos in the military have become much more lenient in recent years.

The last thing you want to happen is to have your heart set on joining the military and then be turned away because of your “I Love Mom” neck tat. To prevent this from happening, here are the branch-specific guidelines you must adhere to when it comes to your body ink.

Navy Tattoo Policy

Often referred to as having one of the most lenient tattoo policies out of all the military branches, the Navy’s tattoo guidelines follow four distinct standards of criteria.

  • Content: Though it may seem obvious, it is against Navy regulation to sport tattoos that contain any discrimination of religion or national origin, as well as tattoos that suggest the use of illegal drugs or gang affiliation. When it comes to the Navy’s policy, it isn’t exactly set in stone and can vary from case to case, but basically, if your tattoo is meant to be “offensive” then there is a high chance it will not be considered acceptable.
  • Location: Once your tattoo is given the go-ahead on its content, the next criteria is the location of your tattoo. Since the US military is pretty big on appearances, your tattoo must be able to be covered by standard uniform items. If you are not able to do so, the Navy considers it to be excessive and unless a waiver is completed you will not be eligible to enlist. While this waiver isn’t very difficult to gather, especially if you are consistently proving you’d be a quality recruit, it still might not be the best idea to opt for a head, neck, face, or sleeved arm tattoo, as these locations are prohibited. While tattoos are allowed almost anywhere, you must make sure any torso tattoos are not going to be visible through Navy dress whites.
  • Size: The Navy’s policy for tattoo size is pretty straightforward. A tattoo on your arm or leg should be no larger than your open hand, and any larger will require a waiver. Also, after recent changes made to the Naval policies, neck tattoos are allowed as long as the recruit does not have more than one and it cannot exceed the height/width dimension of one inch. These tattoos can also not touch the hairline or reach behind the ears.
  • Cosmetic: This section of criteria applies more so to the female members of the armed services, but hey, it’s the 21st century and it’s important to note that cosmetic tattoos ARE allowed in the Navy, as long as it compliments the individual and their natural skin tone. Eyebrow tattoos in the place of natural eyebrows, lipstick tattoos, skin pigmentation correcting tattoos, all are acceptable as long as they don’t draw unnecessary attention.

Army Tattoo Policy

Similar to the Navy’s policy, the Army tattoo policy is relatively lenient as well, but is still considered one of the strictest among the branches. During the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army chose to loosen up its policy to increase its recruitment efforts. Not only were they often missing out on quality candidates, but the Army wanted to shift their view of tattoos to match that of today’s society.

So what are some of the don’ts when it comes to tattoos in the Army?

  • The Army prohibits any tattoos on the neck, head, face, hands, wrists, or above the collar of a t-shirt. The one exception to this rule is a singular ring tattoo in the place of where a traditional ring would go. Any tattoos on the legs must be two inches above or two inches below the knee and not be located directly on the knee itself.
  • Cosmetic tattoos are allowed, but only on women, and must be considered natural and conservative.
  • Tattoo content regulations are identical across all military branches and therefore tattoos cannot contain any racist, sexist, extremist, or indecent content or suggestions.

Marine Corps Tattoo Policy

Unlike the other branches, the Marine Corps tattoo policies are becoming more restrictive as time passes. As an attempt to “realign with their traditional values,” the marines have added new regulations in recent years to help maintain professionalism and high appearance standards.

Once more, the content of your tattoo cannot contain anything racist, sexist, vulgar, eccentric, or anything that could be deemed as offensive. This policy remains the same across the board of the military branches. However, some of the differences that make the Marine policies more restrictive are:

  • Full, half-, and quarter-sleeves are now prohibited, in addition to tattoos on the neck, head, face, hands, fingers, or wrists.
  • Any visible tattoos must not exceed the size of the open hand of the Marine, and cannot be located directly on the knee; instead, being either two inches above or below.
  • A Marine cannot exceed the limit of four visible tattoos when dressed in their standard PT uniform.
  • One ring tattoo is permitted, but it must be under ⅜ of an inch in width.

Air Force Tattoo Policy

Military Tattoo Policy Evolution

The Air Force policy is about on par with the leniency of the Naval policy, but they do have some unique differences. I’m sure by this point it’s clear what content is considered acceptable, but basically, you might want to rethink your tattoo design if it’s meant to offend anyone. While the same location restrictions apply to the Air Force as they do the Navy, one major difference is that the Air Force doesn’t have any tattoo size restrictions, so your tattoos are not limited to the size of your open hand.

Also, the Air Force has recently lifted its 25% rule, which stated that Air Force recruits could not have more than 25% of their body covered in tattoos. Basically, if you want to ink yourself up to your heart’s content, as long as you stick to location and content regulations, the Air Force might be the branch for you!

So, what can you do if you have a tattoo that violates one of the policies in the branch you wish to join?

Well, you have a few different options in this case…

  • Complete a Waiver – There is a high chance that your tattoo waiver will be accepted, especially since the military has been moving away from its once strict tattoo regulations to widen the prospective pool of recruits. If you are curious about whether your waiver would be accepted, head down to your local recruitment office and ask!
  • Tattoo Removal – This option is a bit more extreme, but is, nonetheless, a solution if your tattoo prevents you from serving your country. Tattoo removal, and even “at-home tattoo removal kits” are becoming a more and more common and affordable solution.
  • Consider Choosing a Different Branch – While your tattoo may violate the policy of one branch, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will violate those of all branches, as the regulations do differ slightly. Consider looking into a different branch of service if your body art adheres to their policies more so than the branch you were initially interested in.

Coast Guard Tattoo Policy

The US Coast Guard Tattoo Policy is similar to that of the other military branches. As always, tattoos that are racist, discriminatory, indecent, extremist, lawless, violent, or sexually explicit are not permitted by any branch of the military including the Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard tattoo policy has gotten more lenient over the years and the main details are as follows:

  • Chest tattoos are allowed so long as they are not visible while wearing a standard Coast Guard crew neck t-shirt.
  • Hand tattoos must be no more than one inch in any direction and cannot go past the knuckle closest to the wrist.
  • One finger tattoo is allowed per hand within the length from the first to the second knuckle.
  • Additionally, one ring tattoo per hand is allowed except for on the thumb.

US Military Tattoo Policy 2023

Can we expect any policy changes in 2023?

As general society is slowly normalizing tattoos and they are becoming more common among younger generations, the military is also trying to update its policies to match this level of normalization. Gathering from a pool of recruits who have grown up during a time where tattoos are common, the military doesn’t want to limit its potential members on the basis of body art more than they feel is necessary. Nearly half of all millennials have at least one tattoo, and so the majority of the branches are supporting this changing social norm with their policies.

More changes, such as the Air Force doing away with the 25% rule, can be expected from the US military tattoo policies as we enter the new decade, as tattoos become more and more common.

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