Why can’t military have tattoos?

There are several quick answers to why the military places restrictions on tattoos for enlisted personnel:

Professional appearance

The military seeks to maintain a professional, orderly appearance from its soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. Extensive tattoos can detract from a crisp, uniform look. Some military leaders believe tattoos can undermine perceptions of professionalism and discipline.

Capabilities and readiness

Tattoos with offensive images or messages may undermine perceptions of the military’s values and capabilities. For instance, tattoos associated with extremist or criminal groups could call into question a service member’s integrity and conduct.

Medical concerns

Tattoos can interfere with medical treatments and procedures. For example, tattoos may distort the results of electrocardiograms that monitor heart activity. Certain tattoos may also cause complications or allergic reactions during magnetic resonance imaging tests.

Historical tradition

Restrictions on tattoos reflect long-standing military customs and culture. However, policies have evolved over time. Full tattoo bans were once common but have been relaxed in recent decades to adapt to changing societal norms.

While tattoos are increasingly accepted in civilian society, the military must weigh concerns over appearance, capabilities, medical issues and traditions. Policies aim to balance personal freedom and military necessity.

A Brief History of Military Tattoo Policies

Tattoos have been part of military culture for centuries, but rules governing them have fluctuated over time. Here is a brief overview of how military tattoo policies have evolved in the United States:

1800s: Sparse regulations

In the 19th century, tattooing was popular among sailors and soldiers. The practice commemorated achievements, signified rank or conveyed religious beliefs. The military had few official limitations on tattoos during this period.

World War I: Stricter policies emerge

As the scale and diversity of the armed forces grew in the early 1900s, commanders stressed uniformity and discipline. The Navy and Marine Corps began instituting tighter regulations on tattoos in the 1910s.

World War II: Peak of restrictions

In the 1940s, the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and newly formed Air Force imposed strict tattoo bans. Only small, inconspicuous tattoos were permitted. Servicemen with significant tattoos were barred from re-enlisting.

1970s-1990s: Revisions begin

As public acceptance of tattoos increased, the military revisited rigid policies. The Navy allowed arm tattoos in 1973. In the 1980s and 90s, all branches began permitting tattoos on arms and legs within size limits.

2000s: Rapid changes

Policies rapidly liberalized after 2000. The Marines allowed chest and back tattoos in 2007. The Air Force eliminated size restrictions in 2013. However, offensive and racist tattoos remained prohibited across the services.

2010s: Incremental expansions

In the past decade, military branches have incrementally relaxed certain tattoo guidelines. However, extensive facial, neck and hand tattoos are still restricted or banned to project professionalism.

Current Military Tattoo Policies

While shared principles shape all branches’ tattoo policies today, regulations still vary across the military services.


Army tattoo rules focus on maintaining a professional, unified look. Soldiers may not have tattoos on the head, face, neck or hands. Exceptions are made for one ring tattoo on each hand.

Tattoos below the elbows and knees can not be larger than the wearer’s hand width. No more than four tattoos can be visible in uniform. Extremist, racist and sexist tattoos remain prohibited.


The Navy stipulates that tattoos may not be excessive or objectionable. Sailors are not allowed tattoos on the head, face, neck, scalp or hands. The Navy also bars tattoos that could violate the UCMJ or bring discredit upon the service.

Tattoos on the chest, back, arms and legs must be able to be concealed by uniform. A single neck tattoo is allowed behind the ear.

Marine Corps

Marines are permitted tattoos on arms, legs, chest and back within size limits. Tattoos on the hands, fingers, wrists and inside the mouth are prohibited.

Facial and neck tattoos are restricted to be no larger than one inch. Marines may have no more than four visible tattoos in uniform. Extremist and sexist tattoos remain banned.

Air Force

Air Force guidelines prohibit tattoos on the face, head, neck, tongue, lips and scalp. Tattoos on the hands are limited to one single band ring tattoo on one finger.

Airmen may have no more than 25% of an exposed body part covered with tattoos. Tattoos must not be visible through uniform. Explicit, discriminatory or extremist tattoos remain prohibited.

Coast Guard

Coast Guardsmen are not allowed tattoos on the head, face, neck, scalp or hands. Tattoos anywhere on the body must not be prejudicial to good order, discipline or of a nature to bring discredit upon the service.

The Coast Guard prohibits extremist, indecent, sexist or racist tattoos. In total, tattoos must not exceed 25% of an exposed body part.

Rationale Behind Key Restrictions

Current policies share common restrictions rooted in long-standing military principles and values:

Head, face, neck and hand tattoos

Facial, neck and hand tattoos are widely restricted or banned across all branches. These highly visible tattoos are considered detrimental to an orderly, professional military image. Hand tattoos also cause medical concerns.

Extremist or offensive tattoos

Tattoos affiliated with criminal gangs, racist ideology or indecent images undermine good order and discipline. They conflict with military imperatives of integrity, equal opportunity and cohesion.

Excessive size and number

Excessive tattoos detract from uniformity and can accentuate divisiveness among service members, contrary to team cohesion goals.

Arguments for Relaxing Tattoo Policies Further

Some argue today’s military should relax tattoo restrictions to better adapt to changing social views:

Reflects mainstream acceptance

In the past 30 years, tattoos have gained wider social approval and popularity outside the military. A 2019 poll found 36% of Americans aged 18-29 have at least one tattoo.

Bolsters recruiting and retention

Loosening restrictions may aid recruiting in the younger population. Retention could improve by not penalizing currently serving members for getting tattoos.

Personal expression argument

Allowing more tattoos enables greater personal expression, an argument similar to past rationales for permitting longer hair and beards.

Minimal effect on capabilities

Research has not clearly tied more permissive tattoo policies to impairing military readiness, performance or discipline.

Reasons For Maintaining Limits on Tattoos

However, military leaders and supporters argue policies should not be radically liberalized:

Preserving high standards

Relaxed policies weaken the aura of elite status conveyed by restrictions on personal appearance. Less restrictive rules could undermine standards.

Projection of power and professionalism

Policies on hair, grooming and appearance affect how the armed forces are perceived. Excessive tattoos could detract from projecting an image of strength and professionalism.

Avoiding stark divisions

Excessive leeway on tattoos risks divisions between more heavily tattooed enlisted members and officers with fewer tattoos.

Slippery slope concerns

Critics argue more permissive policies are a slippery slope toward radically relaxed grooming standards that could undermine discipline.

The Future Evolution of Military Tattoo Policies

Military tattoo policies will likely incrementally evolve, even if broad prohibitions remain:

Slower liberalization pace

Branches are unlikely to enact major liberalizations soon after rapid policy changes in the 2000s-2010s period.

Generational shifts

As younger service members rise in leadership roles, they may gradually shape adaptation of policies to reflect shifting generational attitudes.

Individual branch variations

Policies will diverge somewhat across branches based on culture and mission, as is the case today.

Continued opposition to extremist tattoos

While mainstream tattoos will face looser restrictions, extremist, racist and sexist tattoos will remain prohibited.

Ongoing reexamination

Military leaders will keep reevaluating policies to balance personal freedom, military readiness, recruitment and public perceptions.


The military’s restrictive tattoo policies reflect a long-standing balancing act between personal expression and armed forces imperatives like uniformity, discipline, capabilities and public image. Incremental liberalization has occurred based on mainstreaming of tattoos, but significant prohibitions remain.

Military leaders must weigh sentiment among younger service members against tradition, troop unity and projecting strength. Policies will likely see gradual, moderate loosening but extremist tattoos will continue facing blanket bans. The armed forces will keep navigating between adaptation and upholding standards.

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