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The History of Military Tattoos

When you think of tattoos, what kind of person comes to mind? Perhaps a soldier is not your first thought, but tattoos are actually very popular in the military. It makes sense when you think about it – if you have served in the military (or know someone who has), you know that it’s a very significant part of a person’s life. Military tattoos have a strong presence in our culture and a long-standing history as forms of self-expression and commemorations of service.

Early Times Lead to Modern Trends

Today’s Western tattoo trends are said to date back to the 1700’s, when sailors began getting tattoos after being inspired by the indigenous cultures they encountered on their travels. Oftentimes, sailors would get tattoos that represented the places they had been or the positions they held. For example, a tattoo of a turtle on a sailor’s back legs meant he had been to the equator, and a tattoo of rope around his wrist meant he was a dockhand.

These practices haven’t changed much throughout the years. Military men and women still get tattoos to represent where they’ve served, what branch they served in, and who they’ve lost. In fact, there are four recognized themes common with military tattoos:

  1. Pride in Service – This includes tattoos that represent the military in some way or highlight the branch the individual served in.
  2. Patriotism – These are tattoos like American flags, bald eagles, or other symbols of United States patriotism.
  3. Pride in Job – These tattoos show the position an individual held, the unit served in, or other representation of the person’s job and service.
  4. Memorial – These are the types of tattoos soldiers get when people close to them are lost in the service. They can be names, dates, crosses, or other representations that live on in memory of the friends, brothers, and sisters they lost while in battle.

Changing Regulations

For the most part, men and women have used tattoos in the military as a form of self-expression. But in 2014, service members rushed to the tattoo parlors to get inked before new regulations took place. Under these new regulations, the military limited tattoos that were visible when soldiers were wearing shorts and t-shirts. Soldiers were limited to four tattoos below the knees and elbows, and each tattoo couldn’t be bigger than the person’s hand. However, soldiers were allowed to keep their existing tattoos if they were documented before the new regulations took place.

Luckily for service members, these regulations were reversed in 2015. After much soldier feedback, the military relaxed their regulations on tattoos, and now allow soldiers to cover most of their bodies in ink. However, they still can’t have face, neck, or hand tattoos apart from one ring tattoo on each finger or tattoos that were documented before March 31, 2014. Essentially, soldiers can have tattoos as long as they are not visible when they wear their uniform – and there are still regulations on sexist, racist, or other derogatory tattoos.

These two instances haven’t been the first time the military has made changes to their tattoo policies. In 2003, similar regulations were in place that limited tattoo size to the size of the individual’s hand. In 2006, regulations relaxed even further to allow tattoos on the hands and other visible areas, likely to draw more recruits at the height of the Iraq war. Later in 2010, new regulations tweaked the rules for tattoos that served as “permanent makeup,” such as for eyebrows, eyeliner, lipstick, and lip liner.

Though the regulations have changed through the ages, the tradition of military tattoos has not; soldiers continue to get inked up as a form of self-expression, and it’s unlikely that tattoos will ever be banned from the military altogether. Still, if you are concerned about visible tattoos and you want to join the armed forces, there are options – like laser tattoo removal – to help you eliminate tattoos that may conflict with the current regulations. Contact Absolute Laser Tattoo Removal to learn more about removing your visible tattoos before joining the service.