Military Tattoo Policy for all Branches
You recently made the decision to join the U.S. Armed Forces, but you worry that your body art is a no-no for the military’s dress, appearance, and uniform standards. Remember when tattoos were mainly associated with bikers and gangs? Whether you have a tattoo as a lifestyle choice or part of fashionably expressing yourself, those days are long gone.
Like many people, you may think the military has a no tattoo policy. However, over the years, the military, like the rest of corporate America, has a wider acceptance of tattoos.
Depending on where the tattoo is on your body, it may or may not be an issue for the branch you choose. But no need to fret. Your friends at Empire Resume conducted research on ink coverings in the military for you. We’ll show you what’s acceptable, what’s a no-go, and discuss the military tattoo policy for each branch of the military.
The 25 Percent Rule is out the Door
Because of the change in times and shift into a modern, more accepting world, now is a great time to go into the military if you have tattoos. Before recent changes took place, military members were restricted by the “25 percent rule.”
The “25 percent rule” meant that military members were not allowed to have tattoos that covered more than 25 percent of the body parts that show up in uniform. This was a disadvantage of going into the military for some people.
Today, authorized tattoos are no longer bound by this rule.
Let’s take a look at the tattoo policies for the Air Force, Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, and Space Force.
Forbidden Tattoo Categories
Before we begin, let’s see what each branch of the military has in common. It is important to note that all branches forbid the following tattoos:
- Extremist tattoos or brands are those affiliated with, depicting, or symbolizing extremist philosophies, organizations, or activities. Extremist philosophies, organizations, and activities are those which advocate racial, gender, or ethnic hatred or intolerance; advocate, create, or engage in illegal discrimination based on race, color, gender, ethnicity, religion, or national origin; or advocate violence or other unlawful means of depriving individual rights under the U.S. Constitution, and Federal or State law.
- Indecent. Indecent tattoos or brands are those that are grossly offensive to modesty, decency, propriety, or professionalism.
- Sexist. Sexist tattoos or brands are those that advocate a philosophy that degrades or demeans a person based on gender.
- Racist. Racist tattoos or brands are those that advocate a philosophy that degrades or demeans a person based on race, ethnicity, or national origin.
These types of tattoos can put one’s dreams of becoming a member of the U.S. Armed Forces in the rear-view mirror. According to the Marine Corps Times, in 2016, a man was unable to join the Marines because of his Confederate flag tattoo.
If you are considering joining the military, and have tattoos, you should take time to become familiar with your respective branch’s policies by reviewing the regulations and talking to your recruiter.
After reviewing the below regulations, you may notice the Air Force, Army and Navy have fairly similar tattoo policies. The Marine Corps is the strictest among all the branches, giving almost no leeway.
Army Tattoo Regulations
According to Army Regulations, the terms tattoo and brand are interchangeable.
In the Army, there are no limits as to how many tattoos, and the size of those tattoos, a Soldier can have on the arms, legs, chest, and torso.
Soldiers may have one ring tattoo on each hand, pretty much where you’d wear a ring.
Unauthorized tattoo locations include:
- On the head, face, and neck (anything above the T-shirt line)
- On or inside the eyelids, mouth, and ears
Soldiers are subject to an annual check by commanders to ensure Soldiers are not wearing the forbidden tattoos listed above.
Additionally, Soldiers may not cover tattoos or brands with bandages or make up to comply with the tattoo policy.
For detailed information on the Army’s tattoo policy, review Army Regulation 670-1, Wear and Appearance of Army Uniforms and Insignia.
Air Force Tattoo Regulations
The Air Force is pretty lax when it comes to servicemembers with tattoos. Airmen have no restrictions as to the tattoo size.
The following tattoos are allowed:
- Airmen are allowed a single ring tattoo on one finger, on one hand
- Half or full sleeve tattoos
- Feet tattoos
You will notice, the Air Force is currently the only branch that allows feet tattoos.
As far as tattoo don’ts in the Air Force, just like other branches, there cannot be any tattoos on your face, neck, head, lips, or eyelids.
Be sure to keep up with the latest on the Air Force tattoo policy as policies are always subject to change.
Navy Tattoo Regulations
The Navy’s current regulations allows Sailors to have the following:
- One neck tattoo (including behind the ear), if it’s smaller than 1 inch in diameter.
- Tattoos below the knee and elbow, no matter the size and quantity
- Full sleeve tattoos
- Hand and ring tattoos
Below are tattoo don’ts in the Navy.
While the Navy is generous, it also has a strict policy regarding the content of tattoos, such as the forbidden tattoos listed above. You cannot have any tattoos on your head or scalp, and nothing on the actual ear itself.
Again, a neck tattoo cannot exceed the height/width dimensions of 1 inch. In some cases, a neck tattoo that exceeds the maximum 1-inch x 1-inch dimension might be considered by the Navy recruiting commander. But this tattoo must be located on the back of the neck, and not be touching the hairline or reaching behind the ears.
Marine Corps Tattoo Regulations
While the Marines have a conservative tattoo policy, they realize that times are changing. So, they are slowly loosening the reins to accommodate people with ink work.
Marines can have tattoos anywhere on their chest, back, torso, upper thighs, groin area, and upper arms.
Under a physical training (PT) uniform (crew-neck t-shirt and shorts), a Marine can have unlimited tattoos of all shapes, sizes, and colors. But outside of the PT uniform (where the uniform does not cover the body), a Marine is permitted up to four (4) tattoos.
Also, these four tattoos must adhere by the following standards:
- A tattoo, or group of tattoos, located anywhere on the lower arm is allowed only if it can be covered by the Marine’s hand with his or her fingers extended and joined with the thumb flush against the side of the hand. The measurement will be from the base of the palm to the tip of the fingers and from the outside of the thumb to the outside of the palm.
- Band tattoos (i.e. tribal bands) are permitted so long as the band does not exceed three inches or the width of the Marine’s four fingers extended and joined, whichever is greater.
- No tattoos are allowed on the arms, within two inches of the wrist-bone. And the tattoo cannot be located within 2 inches above or below the elbow.
- On the knees, the same 2-inch above/below rule applies.
- While hand tattoos are prohibited in the Marines, a married Marine can get a waiver.
- Marines can have “a single band tattoo of no more than 3/8 of an inch in width on one finger.”
Now, let’s talk Marine Corps tattoo don’ts.
The Marine Corps does not allow full-sleeve or half-sleeve tattoos if they can be seen visually while the Marine wears his or her PT uniform.
Sleeves are defined as full covering of the skin by tattoo ink and are located on the arms or legs.
In addition, tattoos are prohibited on the following locations:
- Hand, fingers, and wrist (except for one ring)
- Face, including in or around the mouth, or eyelids
- Anywhere above the collar bone
- Within 2 inches of the wrist bone, elbow, or knee
- Below the ankle or on the foot
- Head or neck
If you’re questioning what the head or neck means as a Marine, the Marine Corps spells it out clearly in its Bulletin:
“The head is the portion of the body above the first cervical vertebrae (C1). While the neck is defined as the portion of the body above the collarbone in the front area, above the seventh cervical vertebrae (C7) in the back area.” – Marine Corps Bulletin 1020
According to Stars and Stripes, the Marines recently reported that Marines no longer have to submit a 360-degree photo of themselves in their PT uniform to extend their contracts, to prove they are compliant with the Marine Corps tattoo policy.
For more details, check out the Marine Corps Tattoo Policy Booklet.
Coast Guard Tattoo Regulations
In the Coast Guard, you can have full sleeve and half-sleeve tattoos, full back and chest tattoos, and tattoos elsewhere on your body, including your legs.
Members of the Coast Guard aren’t restricted at all when it comes to tattoo size or percentage of coverage. However, any ‘branding’ can’t be larger than a 4-inch by 4-inch area.
- No tattoo can be visible above the Coast Guard crew neck t-shirt.
- You can have one single band ring tattoo on each hand.
- You can also have a finger tattoo that can run the length between the first and second knuckle. You can also have one small hand tattoo, per hand, between the wrist and first knuckle, but it cannot extend one inch in any dimension.
- The Coast Guard also allows Ultraviolet or black light tattoos. The restrictions on these are the same as for regular tattoos.
As far as don’ts, the Coast Guard also prohibits the tattoos listed above. Other than that, you have free rein to use your body as a canvas.
Space Force Tattoo Regulations
As of the writing of this article, we were unable to locate a tattoo policy for the U.S. Space Force, the sixth and newest branch of the military.
Even though we found guidance on Space Force uniforms and insignia, we advise you to speak with a recruiter and become familiar with the Air Force tattoo policy as the Space Force is situated within the Air Force.
Cosmetics: A Gray Area in Military Tattoo Policies
One type of tattoos that may confuse some people are cosmetics, like permanent eyeliner or eyebrows.
These are currently allowed in all branches. Just make sure they are natural-looking in color and shape to adhere to the regulations pertaining to face tattoos.
The team at Empire Resume hopes this information about tattoo policies in the military has been helpful. We’re always here to help with your career planning needs and deliver results, guaranteed!
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Dr. Phillip Gold is President/CEO of Empire Resume and has vast experience writing resumes for service-members transitioning from the military into civilian roles. He served as a Captain in the U.S. Air Force responsible for leading nuclear missile security. Phillip is a Certified Professional Resume Writer and holds a BA in Communications from The Ohio State University, an MS in Instructional Technology, an MBA in Finance, and a PhD in Finance.