Over 6 million veterans currently carry with them one of the most identifiable and permanent symbols of military service ever used–the tattoo. But military themes in tattooing are no recent fad. In this article I go over the history of military tattoos, give some examples, and review the current regulations for each branch of the service.
History of Military Tattoos
We know that tattoos go back to at least to the Neolithic, but in terms of specific references to tattoos and the military, we have at our disposal one of the most famous generals in history.
Julius Caesar in Britain
In 50 BCE, Julius Caesar wrote in his Commentaries on the Gallic Wars that during his campaigns in Britain in 55 and 54 BCE he observed that “all Britons paint themselves with woad, which turns the skin a bluish-green color; hence their appearance is all the more horrific in battle.”
Although Caesar referred to paint, subsequent historians mention tattoos, and modern historians assert that the warriors Caesar encountered were tattooed. The earliest accounts of tattoos and military encounters highlight their use for intimidation. Caesar reinforces this idea by describing the tattoos as not just blue, but horrific.
There is no record of the purpose of the tattoos from the Britons themselves. If their goal was to intimidate their enemies, they definitely achieved it. However, there are additional psychological and emotional effects of being tattooed.
Getting a tattoo is a painful experience involving the insertion of pigment through the epidermis, usually with a needle, into the dermis. The pigment remains permanently under the first layer of skin. A little blood is spilled and there is always the risk of infection.
People who get a tattoo particularly if it is infused with symbolic and ritualistic significance–as was frequently the case for ancient cultures–undergo a transformation. They carry an external indication of having shared an experience and can henceforth be recognized as part of a particular group, whether it be a group with a unique social status, a specific ethnic community, or a class of warriors.
Tattoos essentially create a sense of camaraderie, albeit unintentionally, while trying to intimidate adversaries. Given the prevalence of both tattooing and warfare across the world, it is unsurprising that the Britons were not the sole, nor the most prominent, historical group to have employed tattooing for this purpose.
Captain James Cook
In 1778, Captain James Cook, the celebrated British Naval explorer, arrived at Waimea on Kauai, located in the Hawaiian Islands. The ship’s surgeon observed that “Tattooing is widespread among these individuals, with men receiving more tattoos than women. Many individuals, particularly those from Mowwhee, have half of their body marked in this fashion, giving them an extremely remarkable appearance.”
Or, as later French explorer Jacques Arago described it on the men from O’ahu: they are “tattooed only on one side, which produced a very singular effect; they looked just like men half burnt, or daubed with ink, from the top of the head to the sole of the foot.”
Early observers in Hawaii noted that the half-body tattoo appeared to be limited to warriors.
Similarly, in the Marquesas Islands, warriors also utilized a half-body tattoo. These tattoos served as a form of camouflage, as warriors only exposed the tattooed side of their bodies to the enemy in combat, making it impossible for the same enemy to recognize them in future encounters.
American Civil War
The earliest written records of tattooing in America are those of memorial tattoos: ones that specifically commemorate the military life, comrades, and patriotism in general.
As far back as the Civil War, tattoo artists like Martin Hildebrandt practiced their craft among soldiers close to the battlefields, switching from Union to Confederate and vice versa based on business demand.
Culturally, there appeared to have been a sentiment of remembrance in the air during the Civil War, as evidenced by the establishment of a holiday initially called Decoration Day, where citizens placed flowers on the graves of fallen soldiers.
That holiday has evolved into Memorial Day and has expanded to honor soldiers from all wars. Although the demand for patriotic tattoos may have surged during the Civil War, its popularity has risen and fallen for every conflict since.
Enduring patriotic symbols that are now part of modern tattoos were already evident in the early work of tattoo artist C. H. Fellowes.
Fellowes depicted particular conflicts, such as the defeat of the Confederate cruiser Alabama, which had seized, set ablaze, or sunk 68 vessels within two years, but was ultimately sunk by the Union’s USS Kearsarge.
After the sinking of the Alabama, the crew and officers of the Union’s USS Kearsarge tattooed stars on their foreheads in commemoration of the victory. Along with these specific images, broader themes that remain popular in patriotic and memorial tattoos today had also emerged in the work of tattooist C. H. Fellowes, including scrolled lettering, the national flag, patriotic bunting, stars, stripes, and even the bald eagle.
For the Spanish-American War, military tattoos actually appeared before formal hostilities.
Do you remember the U.S.S. Maine? Likely not, since it was sunk in Havana Harbor at the beginning of the Spanish-American War in 1898. A suspicious explosion quickly sank the battleship, taking the lives of the 260 sailors aboard her.
Despite Spain’s offer to investigate and submit to arbitration, the cause of the USS Maine disaster was never found. The phrase “Remember the Maine and to Hell with Spain” was coined, and sailors of the time eagerly got it tattooed on their chests before heading out to seek revenge for the ship’s sinking.
These types of military tattoos had already acquired many of the features which we recognize today: the curved scroll or banner with perhaps a slogan, name, or date; red, white, and blue bunting; the stars and stripes; a giant eagle as a backdrop.
The Modern Era
Even though they are distant in time and fading from memory, the events and tattoos from the past serve as a faint echo of the Gulf War and Afghanistan tattoos, as well as the popular “911” tattoos that emerged around military bases across the nation following the September 11th attacks of 2001.
Tattoo artists today often blend various images and themes to create custom designs. Tattoo designs still draw on other patriotic symbols but the new style of tattoo represents the influence of mainstream tattooing.
Groups of military personnel, including both men and women, are coming together to get matching tattoos before deployment, displaying a sense of unity. Additionally, tattoo shops continue to be busy while troops are deployed.
Some receive a steady business from spouses and other family members who are keen to commemorate their patriotism as well as their loved ones.
However, of all the people who acquire patriotic tattoos, it is the people of the military who understand all too well the real risks associated with their profession.
Tattoos marking a soldier’s serial number, blood type, or religious preference placed on the underside of the arm (an area that might escape damage) serve as a grim reminder of the potential dangers faced in combat.
Military tattoos encompass a vast array of designs, from the horrific blue-green marks of Caesar’s enemies to modern dog tags, the Navy emblem, the Air Force logo, popular Marine tattoo designs such as the globe and anchor or the muscular Devil Dog, and countless other tattoo designs in between.
Regulations for Military Tattoos
Although modern military services may not endorse tattoos, they are finding that a growing number of service members have tattoos–including extensive tattoos–due to the rising popularity of tattoos in mainstream culture.
Recently, each military branch has updated its tattoo policy regarding suitable tattoo designs and placements. Though not explicitly stated, these policies acknowledge the long-standing relationship between the military and tattoos. The tradition of military tattooing merges personal and military histories, etched into the skin in images and words. Despite evolving over time and adapting to different circumstances, this tradition continues to foster camaraderie, establish group identity, and commemorate personal transformations.
No tattoos that are extremist, indecent, sexist or racist anywhere on body (prejudicial to good order and discipline). All tattoos regardless of subject matter are prohibited on the head, face (except for permanent makeup), neck (anything above the t-shirt neckline to include on or inside the eyelids, mouth, and ears), below the wrist bone, and hands, except Soldiers may have one ring tattoo on each hand, below the joint of the bottom segment (portion closest to the palm) of the finger.
See Army Regulation 670-1 for more details.
Tattoos/body art/brands located anywhere on the body that are prejudicial to good order, discipline, and morale or are of a nature to bring discredit upon the naval service are prohibited. For example, tattoos/body art/brands that are obscene, sexually explicit, and or advocate discrimination based on sex, race, religion, ethnic, sexual orientation or national origin are prohibited. In addition, tattoos/body art/brands that symbolize affiliation with gangs, supremacist or extremist groups, or advocate illegal drug use are prohibited.
No tattoos/body art/brands on the head, face (to include ear) and scalp, except for cosmetic tattoo.
One tattoo is authorized on the neck and should not exceed one inch in measurement in any direction. Tattoos/body art/brands meeting these requirements are acceptable behind the ear. Permissible tattoos/body art/brands on the torso area of the body shall not be visible through white uniform clothing.
For more information see NAVPERS 15665I, Chapter 2, Article 2201.
Marines may have tattoos on any area of the body, excluding the head, neck, and hands. Tattoos that are prejudicial to good order and discipline, or that are of a nature to bring discredit upon the naval service, are prohibited. Examples include, but are not limited to, tattoos that are drug-related, gang-related, extremist, obscene or indecent, sexist, or racist,
For more information see Marine Corps Bulletin 1020.
The Coast Guard prohibits tattoos on the head and neck except for one tattoo behind one ear that is no larger than one inch in measurement in any dimension. They also prohibit tattoos on the hands except for one ring or finger tattoo and one hand tattoo.
Tattoos/brands/body markings anywhere on the body that are obscene, commonly associated with gangs, extremist, and/or supremacist organizations, or that advocate sexual, racial, ethnic, or religious discrimination are prohibited in and out of uniform. Air Force regulations prohibit tattoos on the head and hands, but allow one tattoo on the neck not to exceed 1 inch in any dimension and also a single ring tattoo on one finger.
For more information see AIR FORCE INSTRUCTION 36-2903.
Frequently Asked Questions
Although the regulations of each branch of the service vary, in general tattoos that involve anything extremist, indecent, sexist or racist are not allowed.
The regulations vary for each branch of the service, but the new military tattoo rules are more lenient and have begun to permit neck tattoos or a ring tattoo on one finger, as examples. Some branches also permit sleeve tattoos.
Yes, any branch of the military will likely deny you for visible tattoos in prohibited locations such as facial tattoos.