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SMA: Army Tattoo Policy May Change Again

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I am a longtime online writer with years of experience writing about the military and tattoos.

Is the Army's tattoo policy unfair? Read on and decide for yourself.

Is the Army's tattoo policy unfair? Read on and decide for yourself.

Army Tattoo Policy Is Always a Hot Topic

Reading a copy of the Army Times just two days ago, I was not surprised to see an article in which the Sergeant Major of the Army (SMA) was out and about discussing the current tattoo policy with Soldiers and senior leaders.

It seems that many Army leaders, both junior and senior, are taking exception to the current Army tattoo policy and would like to see it tightened up.

Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond F. Chandler is the Army's senior enlisted member. The role of the SMA is a very unique and honored one. He or she is to serve as an advocate to address the issues and concerns of the enlisted soldiers to all officers, and all the way up to the Army's highest positions. The SMA is the senior enlisted advisor to the Chief of Staff of the US Army.

Just to give you a quick example of the power and teamwork of the SMA and the Chief of Staff of the Army, when Soldiers wanted to do away with the decade long black beret policy the current SMA and COS listened, considered and acted. The beret which had been the duty headgear for Soldiers quickly went away. The force rejoiced!

Army Tattoo Policy Is a Bit More Sensitive

The Army tattoo policy was loosened at the height of the combat actions in Iraq and Afghanistan to assist the Army Recruiting Command in enlisting qualified members. The current tattoo policy allows for females to wear permanent, tattooed make-up as long as it is of an acceptable skin tone and also allows for tattoos to be on the back of the neck.

Tattoos that not visible in uniform as long as they are not offensive, vulgar, racist, extremist or sexist are allowed as well.

The tattoo policy has always been a sensitive issue and one that recruiting commanders and Soldiers must always be mindful of when enlisting young men and women. The terms vulgar, racist and extremist are pretty well defined and the Army had little trouble with the pushing those definitions. An example of tattos that would fall under those categories are: cuss words, swastikas, gang symbols, names of gangs, depictions of naked men or women, etc. Tracking all of these symbols and signs is a large responsibility.

Enlisting a Soldier with tattoos that were "concern" became an "event". Forms needed to be filled out with exact locations and meaning clearly reported on those forms and in the recruiting information systems. Pictures were taken in different types of uniform shirts, measurements were taken and then, finally, an executive or commanding officer would study, consider and either approve or disapprove based on guidelines within the regulations.

As another example: "Back of the neck" meant "earlobe and back". Recruiters would put the applicant in a collared, Army dress uniform shirt and take pictures from several different angles to ensure it was not visible.

Another issue that makes the tattoo policy difficult for recruiters to assess is that that a tattoo that is not visible in regular clothing can not bee shown to a recruiter or photographed by anyone in the command for obvious privacy and decency issues.

The Army's Concern With Tattoos

The Army is a professional organization, and as such, its Soldiers should present themselves in that fashion. Tattoos can easily detract from the professional appearance of a Soldier in uniform. The problem is that the Army has a few different uniforms. A tattoo that cannot be seen in an Army Service Uniform or Army Combat Uniform may be visible in the an Army Physical Fitness Uniform.

Furthermore, words like "professional appearance" and "offensive" become open to interpretation.

A Possibly Sticky Situation

Loosening the tattoo policy to allow the Army to grow when needed and then talk of tightening the policy back the same week as the President announces a full troop withdrawal from Iraq has caused a mild uproar within the ranks. It could possibly send the message that the Army will change policy and worth of applicants based upon need, rather than a professional standard. Was the Army less professional when engaged in constant combat in Iraq?

However, the Army has been ordered to downsize and when that historically happens the Army does tighten its standards with enlistments and retention. This not atypical of any organization and it is a decision that will weigh heavily on Army leadership. Will a current Soldier find themselves in a situation where they could be denied re-enlistment due to a change in the Army tattoo policy when just 3 years earlier they were allowed to enlist with the same tattoo?


The tattoo policy change is a hot topic. The more I see people reading this and searching for it in Google makes me happy that I wrote this as soon as it was talked about.

What do you all think of Soldiers with tattoos?

Update: 3-17-2014

It's now "officially" official. The new AR (Army Regulation) 670-1 will be out soon to include changes in the tattoo policy as well as the requirement to be clean shaven at all times (leave, off-duty, hospitalized, etc.)

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Christian on September 05, 2016:

Three years of service and a deployment, after being out for 5 years and realizing civilian life sucks, I want back in the Army. Tattoo policy has changed, and my base of hand script, ring finger infinity sign, and back of neck raven (all very small) DQ me. WTF? When I was in 2008 we had people with all sorts of neck and hand tattoos much larger than I have now. This is unfair and eliminates a perfectly good soldier from re-enlisting and possibly even becoming an officer. What sense does this make? Because I chose to represent my faith and family on my own skin in a tastefully artsy manner, I can't resume my career? Hell, I was even in Arts & Media the first time around (46Q). It's time the military starts recognizing people on their merits instead of blanket negative profiling of people who would otherwise be stellar soldiers and a great addition to any professional atmosphere.

Never thought I'd say this, but the Navy is what's up now if you have tattoos and want to get back in.

Shaunte23 on January 28, 2015:

This is ridiculous I'm told I can't join to protect my country because I have tattoos on my legs are you serious they are in no way demeaning or disrespectful this is the stupidest policy you are judging us because we have tattoos wake up already its 2015 you're telling me to remove a tribute to my daughter so I can join that's not an option for me

DarrinA on August 29, 2014:

Yea I have 3 band tattos and 2 others on my forearm that can be covered up and nothing racial or sexual or gang related and I can't even join the Reserves because of having 3 bands ?? I don't get it at all now I can get there removed but by the time the processes is done who know if there gonna change it back to having tattoos is ok and this its gone a be a waist of money and time and could be protecting this country for however many months it takes to remove these bands. Come on Chief in Camander Obama how come you don't get a say in how the military should be your the one who has the military under your wing. If you want the American People to get good jobs and be what we want to be. Don't stop us the "American People" from doing that and protecting our country.

LarryP on August 29, 2014:

I believe they should change it back to you can have tattoo. Me and all my friends (12) are trying to join but can't because of the tattoo policy...and we are still trying to find a way so we can join

foundrymanshane on August 27, 2014:

it sounds like some old school dinosaurs still need to be weeded out of the system

Richie on July 13, 2014:

This is ridiculous. It's been a dream of mine to fight for my country, to join the military. Because I have a full sleeve tattoo I can no longer join? That makes no sense. Who am I harming as long as their not offensive? The military should not judge someone based on tattoos it's not right. It's 2014 let's get real here people! As soon as a war breaks out you'll be wishing you accepted everyone trying to join with tattoos. Tattoos don't make someone a worst person. Judging someone for having tattoos does. Remember that.

Zack on June 08, 2014:

I'm 21 an I'm ready to join the army an better my life an I have a sleeve on my right arm an two on my left, an now I'm worried I won't even be accepted when all I want to do is join a netter my life

ev on July 20, 2013:

morals sukka... increases moral!

just got out on May 26, 2013:

I was in the Army for 12 years and got all 28 of my tattoos during my service. Just before I left my 1SG let me know that the policy would be changing and that I would have to remove my wedding ring tattoo and one other (back of neck) once the policy took place. 12 years of service, 2 deployments and not one bad counseling statement of reprimand, and it was going to be remove the tattoos or get kicked out. Yes all others would be grandfathered into the new policy, but to remove my wedding ring was/is not an option. This is wrong and disrespectful to those of us that have served so faithfully. When I got out I had every intention of going back in once I finished school, but now that option may not be there do to the change in policy without removing tattoos. (which is not an option for me.) We have to keep our hair within standards, we are not allowed to get body/facial piercings, let us keep our tattoos. They do not affect our ability to perform our duty in a professional manner nor do they make the military look bad in anyway. Its the year 2013 not 1950. Tattoos are more expectable today then ever before.

SPC (P) Gaulding on April 16, 2013:

they are only enforcing tattoos on the recruiting side of the Army. I just got a full sleeve tattoo two weeks ago, hell my commander even congratulated me on it.

jimmyhh on December 25, 2012:

Currently in the Army, would I be able to get a tattoo on my right forearm right now? I don't want to get it and then later be asked to get it removed or resign.

Matt on September 25, 2012:

I honestly fail to see how this is relevent to combat readiness, especially with social custom being increasingly favorable towards tattoos over time.

Jpaitsel on August 20, 2012:

tattoos mean nothing compared to getting the job done. if you were in seceret servive that would be different but nothing to a infantryman

j rock on July 26, 2012:

Tattos have been a part of Military history from the beginning. The first tattoo I ever saw was on a serviceman. That never gave me the opinion of unprofessionalism. To me it gives the appearance of a warrior. I believe that a Soldier with tattos is no less professional than one without. At least the Soldiers currently serving with approved tattos should be grandfathered for the simple fact that they were good enough to fight and die for their country before, but now they are not worthy because of their appearance that is NOW under scrutiny.

kmuise (author) from Laurel, MD and Bedford, MA on June 18, 2012:

Jerry...agreed-all good points.

Nic-look intimidating to who? The enemy? Are you guys running around shirtless now and flexing painted biceps in an attempt to intimidate insurgents? Just saying...

Thanks for stopping by guys!


Spc Stanhope, Jerry on May 14, 2012:

It makes sense to me that the military may look at enforcing a more aggressive standard of enlisting people who have tattoos on the back of their neck. But for those of us who have them and have already begun our career in the military and have done whatever the army has expected, I don't think we should have to wonder if we will be put out of the army. It seems reasonable to say that we have to conform to the new policy moving forward but we all should be allowed to be judged on our performance. I hold a 270 pt test score. I don't think a person who has 180 pt test deserves to be here any more than me because he or she doesn't have any tattoos that are visible. Also the professionalism argument doesn't really hold because they are willing to grandfather in sleeves when sleeves, in my opinion, are way more visible than a neck tattoo.

nic on April 30, 2012:

All i know is that im an infantryman and tattoos are basically a way of life for us. They enable us to no joke look more intimidating. Which is a wow factor.

curious soldier on April 17, 2012:

honestly i think its complete bullshit that they would even consider kicking anyone out based on something to do with their skin, the army chose to let people come in and should not kill re-enlistment based off that, should we go back to war some of those soldiers, people who fought for their country would give a rats ass less about helping because someone threw their career in the trash after allowing them what they have to begin with.

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