U.S. Army considers new tattoo policy

Be all you can be, so long as we can't see.

The U.S. Army appears to be shifting toward a new tattoo policy. Those looking to join that branch of the military will still be able to have ink on their bodies, but they won't be able to sport any sort of art below their elbows, below their knees or above their necklines. In other words, if it doesn't show when you've got shorts and a T-shirt on, you can still be Army Strong.

Secretary of the Army John McHugh already has approved these changes to Regulation 670-1, which governs how soldiers can look. Now, according to the armed forces newspaper Stars and Stripes, a final signature will come soon, making this change official.

Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond Chandler, the top noncommissioned officer, told troops at eastern Afghanistan bases on Saturday that he expects the policy to be changed within two months.

This won't be the first tattoo restriction for soldiers. The Army has had a tattoo policy since 2002. Currently, soldiers cannot have tattoos on their heads or faces, and they can't have ink anywhere that is considered racist, sexist or indecent. Those looking to enlist, meanwhile, also can't have tattoos on their necks.

If a soldier violates the Army's rules, he or she will have to pay to get the ink removed.

If the new policy takes effect, it won't apply to everyone in the military. Each branch has its own policies regarding tattoos. And even within the military, current soldiers with sleeve, calf or neck tats won't have to get rid of their ink. They will be grandfathered in.

Christopher Nash, a tattoo artist at Triple 7 Studio, said he has provided body art to plenty of soldiers. Some of them told Nash they thought a policy shift might be on the horizon, and they wanted to get their tattoos before they were banned.

As an artist, Nash isn't opposed to the rule change. He likes that some people don't accept tattoos. He likes that they can be a target for discrimination.

photo San Ashitaka from Knoxville, Tenn., has two characters from Cowboy Bebop tattooed on his arm by Ella Trick during the Chattanooga Tattoo Convention in July at the Chattanooga Convention Center.

"This is like the last rebel art form," he said. "I can see the benefits of it being accepted into the mainstream, because that means more money for me. But I'm not only in it for the money."

If your art doesn't upset some people, Nash said, your art isn't worthwhile. But, more than ever, Americans approve of tattoos.

According to a 2012 Harris Poll, three-quarters of Americans say tattoos on a person's skin give no indication as to whether that person would do something they consider deviant. That response represents a 5 percentage-point increase compared to Americans who were asked the same question in 2008.

And, according to the same poll, one in five people in the United States has a tattoo. That rate holds steady for those between the ages of 18 and 24 -- the people most likely to join the Army. People in that age group are twice as likely now to have a tattoo as they were in 2008, when one in 10 of them sported ink.

But even as the country becomes more accepting of tattoos, not everyone thinks they belong on soldiers. Larry Palmer, who served in the U.S. Navy from 1968 to 1972, believes freedom of expression is important. But in the military, he said, a unified look is more important.

The department head of military sciences at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga agrees. Maj. Robert Ricks said the policy change is about strengthening the Army's standards of behavior and uniformity. Ricks doesn't have any tattoos, but he served with some who do, and he knows members of the university's ROTC who have some ink.

He doesn't see the policy change creating a problem.

"If they have the desire and willingness to be in the ROTC or to join the Army," Ricks said, "I'm sure they'll be willing to take care of any issues with tattoos."

Josh Land, 73, grew up in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Before joining the Navy in 1958, he rarely saw body art, and he never saw a tattoo parlor.

That changed when he reported to San Diego for training. Parlors were everywhere, and all sorts of people got ink. But he didn't. He didn't have much money at the time, and he didn't see the point in such a permanent purchase.

Still, in the United States, tattoos and the military share an intertwined history. Martin Hildebrandt, one of America's first renowned tattoo artists, inked sailors and military servicemen on both sides of the Civil War.

And then there was Norman Keith Collins. Also known as "Sailor Jerry," Collins is one of the most famous tattoo artists in American history. In the late 1920s, he set up shop in Oahu, Hawaii, and throughout World War II his place was a popular spot for soldiers and sailors to visit.

"It is kind of ironic," Duffy Dillard, an artist at Standard Ink Tattoo Co., said of the Army's pending policy. "That's pretty much the roots of tattooing."

But, Dillard added, he has no problem with the rule change. He gets it. The military should at least be able to hold its members to the same standards that businesses do. And plenty of businesses ban ink.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or at tjett@timesfreepress.com.

Upcoming Events