Are tattoos not allowed in FBI?

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is one of the most well-known law enforcement agencies in the United States. The FBI has strict policies and standards that special agents must adhere to, including physical fitness requirements and limitations on body art such as tattoos. Many people wonder – are tattoos not allowed in the FBI? Let’s take a closer look at the FBI’s tattoo policy and restrictions.

Quick Overview of the FBI’s Tattoo Policy

The short answer is that tattoos are not outright banned for FBI agents. However, there are restrictions on the number, size, and placement of tattoos that prospective agents must follow. Some of the key points in the FBI’s policy include:

  • Tattoos are not allowed on the head, face, neck, or hands.
  • Offensive, racist, or gang-related tattoos are prohibited.
  • Visible tattoos cannot cover more than 25% of an exposed body part.
  • Agents with non-visible tattoos must report their location and size to the FBI.

So in summary, tattoos are restricted but not entirely disallowed for FBI agents. The policy aims to maintain the FBI’s professional image while allowing for personal expression through reasonable tattoo allowances.

History of the FBI’s Tattoo Policy

The FBI has had policies regulating agent appearance and attire since its early days. However, specific rules regarding tattoos did not appear until the 2000s. After 9/11, the FBI experienced rapid growth in personnel and began updating its regulations regarding agent standards and appearance.

In 2003, the FBI officially addressed tattoos in its grooming and dress code policies. The initial policy was highly restrictive, banning any visible tattoos on agents. This policy stayed in place until 2016.

After years of receiving criticism for the overly restrictive tattoo ban, the FBI finally updated its policy. The new 2016 policy, which remains in place today, introduced the allowance for some visible tattoos. However, it still imposed strict location, size, and content restrictions.

Some key moments in the evolution of the FBI’s tattoo policy:

  • 2003 – First official policy bans visible tattoos on agents.
  • 2009 – FBI relaxes rules on facial hair growth for agents.
  • 2012 – Request submitted to allow discrete tattoos on agents.
  • 2016 – New policy introduced allowing some visible tattoos but imposing restrictions.

Reasoning Behind the Tattoo Restrictions

The FBI has provided detailed reasoning for why it chooses to restrict tattoos and other aspects of personal appearance for its agents:

Professionalism – As the nation’s foremost law enforcement agency, the FBI believes it must maintain a professional, business-like appearance for credibility. Visible tattoos beyond a certain size are viewed as detracting from that image.

Neutrality – The FBI must avoid any appearance of bias based on race, ethnicity, religion, or political affiliation. Strict limits on tattoo content help agents maintain neutral authority.

Safety – Undercover agents may need to conceal identifiable tattoos to ensure anonymity and safety when interacting with criminals. Limits on visible tattoos support covert operations.

Uniformity – A consistent dress code promotes unity and discipline in the agency. Allowing completely unrestricted tattoos could undermine the cohesive team environment.

While critics argue the policy is outdated or overly limiting, the FBI believes tattoo restrictions are necessary for these reasons. The 2016 update did show willingness to moderately ease the rules.

Current Tattoo Restrictions for FBI Agents

Under the current FBI tattoo policy enacted in 2016, the following restrictions apply to special agents:

Banned Locations

  • Tattoos on the head, face, neck, or hands are prohibited.
  • Inside the mouth tattoos are banned.

Offensive Tattoos

  • Any tattoo that is indecent, sexist, racist, or extremist is banned.
  • Tattoos affiliated with gangs, cartels, or criminal organizations are prohibited.

Visible Tattoo Limits

  • A single, visible tattoo cannot be larger than 2 x 2 inches.
  • Visible tattoos on any body part cannot exceed 25% of the exposed area.
  • The 25% coverage rule can be waived if tattoos are not readily visible in attire.

Agents who do not comply with these rules can be barred from promotion, assignments, or other opportunities. Repeated violations are grounds for dismissal from the Bureau.

Exceptions Made for Religious Tattoos

The only exception made in the FBI’s tattoo restrictions is for tattoos connected to organized religions. Agents may be granted leeway if a tattoo represents a recognized religion and was applied as part of a religious ceremony or rite.

For example, many Christian Copts traditionally get a small cross tattoo on their inner wrist. Such tattoos would typically be allowed due to their religious nature, even though they are visible.

However, the religious tattoos still cannot violate other aspects of the policy, such as size limits or facial locations. And as always, supremacist or extremist tattoos are prohibited regardless of any religious connection.

Reporting Requirements for Non-Visible Tattoos

For FBI personnel with tattoos not visible in professional attire, the tattoos must still be reported. Agents must provide descriptions of any hidden tattoos to the FBI including:

  • Location on the body
  • Size and nature of the tattoo
  • Any text or imagery contained in the tattoo

This reporting allows the FBI to maintain records on all agent tattoos and check for any concerning or prohibited content. Even though concealed tattoos do not affect professional appearance, the FBI still requires transparency.

How Common Are Tattoos Among FBI Agents?

Data on exactly how many FBI agents have tattoos is not publicly released by the Bureau. However, it is reasonable to infer a significant number of agents have at least some concealed tattoos. Over 40% of Americans ages 18-40 have at least one tattoo, and law enforcement personnel are no exception.

Based on tattoo popularity rates in broader society, as well as anonymous agent interviews, it seems tattoos are reasonably common among FBI staff. Though for special agents who directly interface with the public, the visible tattoo restrictions likely discourage many designs.

The strict policy on visible tattoos is probably a significant factor keeping tattoo prevalence lower among FBI special agents compared to some other law enforcement groups. But among younger trainees joining more recently, tattoos are reported to be a fairly common occurrence.

Notable Cases of FBI Agents with Tattoos

While examples are limited due to the private nature of internal FBI personnel affairs, some cases of agents with tattoos have become public over the years:

Mike German

Mike German joined the FBI in the 1980s and served as an undercover counterterrorism agent for many years. He is now a prominent whistleblower and critic of the Bureau for civil liberties issues.

German had large forearm tattoos from his earlier years as an undercover narcotics officer. Instead of having them removed, the FBI had him wear flesh-colored bandages to cover the tattoos whenever meeting with foreign dignitaries or testifying in court.

Harold “Skip” Shumate

Skip Shumate was an FBI agent heavily involved in high-profile kidnapping cases in the 2000s. He was found to have a distinctive panther tattoo on his left shoulder.

Shumate’s minor violation of policy drew criticism from defense lawyers in the kidnapping trials who claimed it undermined his credibility as a witness.

Frederic Whitehurst

Fred Whitehurst joined the FBI laboratory as a forensic chemist in 1982. He later became a prominent whistleblower regarding flawed forensic procedures.

In his youth Whitehurst had a large phoenix tattoo on his chest which was publicly revealed after he became a high-profile whistleblower. The lab-based role allowed him to avoid conflict with appearance policies.

Differences in Tattoo Policies Among Law Enforcement Agencies

The FBI certainly has one of the most restrictive tattoo policies of any law enforcement agency. Here is a comparison of the tattoo rules for different federal and local agencies:

Agency Tattoo Policy Summary
FBI No visible tattoos on head, face, hands, or neck. Visible tattoos elsewhere limited in size and percentage of body coverage.
U.S. Marshals No limits on agent tattoos but may be restricted based on specific assignments.
Secret Service Visible offensive or excessive tattoos prohibited. Otherwise tattoos allowed.
ATF Tattoos prohibited on head, face, neck, and hands. No excessive or offensive tattoos.
Local Police Varies by department but most do not impose strict limits.

Compared to agencies like the U.S. Marshals and many local police, the FBI tattoo rules are relatively stringent. The FBI policy reflects its status as the nation’s top investigative agency where professional appearance is prioritized.

How the FBI Reviews Candidates with Tattoos

For candidates seeking to become FBI agents, tattoos can factor into the hiring decision and review process:

  • Candidates must disclose any tattoos and provide photographs showing their location, size, and content.
  • Tattoos are examined to check for compliance with the published restrictions.
  • Candidates may be asked to explain the meaning or nature of any tattoos.
  • Final hiring determination considers the candidate’s full qualifications, including any tattoos.
  • Candidates may be barred from proceeding or asked to remove tattoos violating the policy.

Reviews aim to ensure candidate tattoos meet policy standards and are consistent with FBI principles. As with current agents, prohibited tattoos can disqualify candidates from being hired as special agents.

Can Current FBI Agents Be Grandfathered for Existing Tattoos?

A common question is whether FBI personnel hired before the 2016 policy can be grandfathered in for tattoos acquired earlier in their career. However, the policy update included no formal grandfathering provision.

Restrictions on facial, head, neck, and hand tattoos apply universally regardless of when an agent joined. For visible tattoos elsewhere on the body, some minor allowances may be made on a case-by-case basis.

But all agents are expected to adhere closely to the current policy. Strict new tattoo limits still apply even to senior agents who joined decades earlier under prior policies.

Disciplinary Action for Agents Violating Tattoo Policy

As with any policy violation, failure to comply with the FBI’s tattoo restrictions can result in administrative discipline. Specific consequences may include:

  • Counseling – Supervisors explain policy standards and expectations regarding appearance.
  • Written Warning – Formal reprimand documenting the tattoo violation is added to agent’s file.
  • Reassignment – Agent may be moved to a non-public position until violating tattoos are removed.
  • Suspension – Agent may be temporarily suspended without pay for repeated violations.
  • Tattoo Removal – Agent will be required to undergo tattoo removal at own expense before returning to full duty.
  • Termination – Agent may be dismissed for excessive violations or refusal to comply with orders.

Consequences are issued at the discretion of Office of Professional Responsibility and depend on circumstances like the severity, intent, and repetition of violations.

How Common Are Waivers for the Tattoo Policy?

While disciplinary action is outlined for violations, the FBI does allow some discretion for official waivers to tattoo restrictions:

– Waiver requests must be submitted by an agent in writing and require supervisor approval.

– Waivers are only granted in limited circumstances for tattoos not affecting essential job duties.

– Any waivers granted are reviewed annually and can be revoked at any time.

– Very few waiver requests are approved – most agents with prohibited tattoos undergo removal.

– No waivers are granted for facial, head, neck, or hand tattoos under any circumstance.

So while the option for a waiver exists, exceptions are rarely made in practice. The policy is designed to be strict and standardized across the Bureau.

Arguments For and Against the FBI’s Tattoo Policy

Like any personnel issue, the FBI’s tattoo policy is the subject of debate between advocates on both sides:

Arguments Supporting the Policy:

– Maintains FBI’s distinguished, professional image.

– Promotes neutral authority free from discrimination.

– Allows undercover work without identifying tattoos.

– Upholds principles of decorum and discipline.

Arguments Against the Policy:

– Infringes on personal freedom of expression.

– Discriminates against younger generations more likely to have tattoos.

– Does not enhance capabilities or qualifications.

– Perpetuates outdated norms on appearance.

– Impedes recruitment when other agencies have relaxed policies.

This remains an issue of contention between FBI leadership who defend the policy and agents who feel it is overly restrictive. The 2016 update did indicate the Bureau is willing to moderately ease tattoo limits over time.

Trends and Changes in the Tattoo Profession

As cultural views on tattoos evolve, the professional tattoo industry has grown and changed as well:

– Tattoo popularity has surged in recent decades – from 14% of Americans in 2008 to over 30% as of 2018.

– Tattooing was legalized in all 50 states in the mid 1960s. It has become more socially acceptable since then.

– Tattoo artists were not classified as professionals until the 1980s and 1990s when national training standards emerged.

– Medical-grade pigments, sanitation procedures, and artistic development have improved tattoo quality and safety.

– Celebrity and media promotion of tattoos has helped drive popularity and acceptance. However, stigma still remains in some sectors.

– Advances in laser removal expanded options for those later wanting tattoos removed. Removal is now in high demand with 13% of tattooed Americans undergoing the procedure.

So while still contentious in some environments, tattoos have become more mainstream and professionally regulated in recent decades. But remnants of stigma clearly persist in settings like the FBI.


The FBI maintains one of the strictest tattoo policies of any law enforcement agency, though they have eased restrictions moderately over time. Tattoos are subject to location, size, and content limitations under FBI standards for professionalism. While not outright banned, visible tattoos do face significant restrictions and all tattoos must be disclosed. Arguments continue around the policy, though the FBI asserts limits are necessary for its elite, distinctive image as the nation’s top investigative agency. The policy provides helpful insight into how tattoos are viewed through the lens of the disciplined, traditional FBI culture.

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