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Air Force tattoo policy change opens recruiting possibilities

Air Force tattoo policy change opens recruiting possibilities

1st Sgt. Aki Paylor won’t have any trouble recalling the Warrior Ethos. “For me, the Warrior Ethos — that’s who I am.” Since all of Paylor’s tattoos were done a number of years ago, he’s grandfathered in. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Stephanie van Geete)

By Tracy Fuga

The Air Force said it will no longer limit the size of airmen’s body tattoos, a significant shift that opens the door for sleeve tattoos. The policy change took effect Feb. 1.

The change occurred during the Air Force’s look at updating its uniform and appearance policy, which it does every four years. The change in regulations will allow both arm and leg sleeves.

“As a next step in this evolution, we are opening the aperture on certain medical accession criteria and tattoos while taking into account our needs for worldwide deployability and our commitment to the profession of arms,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said in a statement.

The service is axing its so-called “25 percent rule,” which prohibits tattoos that cover more than a quarter of an exposed body part. That rule was added to the Air Force Guidance Memorandum, or AFI 36-2903, “Dress and Personal Appearance,” in 1998, then updated with a measuring tool in 2010, said Air Force spokesman Maj. Bryan Lewis.

Tattoos will now be allowed on the chest, back, arms and legs and will not be restricted to size.

Tattoos, brandings or body markings on the head, neck, face, tongue, lips and or scalp will still be prohibited as will tattoos that are racist, sexist or symbols associated with any hate groups.

“If presented with a request from Air Force officials, AFOSI would research the symbol to determine if it has been reported to law enforcement in the past as associated with hate groups,” OSI spokeswoman Linda Card said. “We defer to DOJ, FBI and ATF for an official stance on any symbol’s association with hate groups.”

There will be no restriction on the arm up to an individual’s wrist. The only tattoo you can have on your hand is on one finger. For example, a wedding ring tattoo. Current airmen with existing hand tattoos that were authorized under the previous policy will be grandfathered in under the old policy standards.

The service previously allowed tattoos to be visible while in PT gear but not service dress or other formal uniforms. If an airman had an “excessive” tattoo — exceeding the 25 percent rule — but was granted a waiver by his or her command, the individual was required to cover up the tattoo while in uniform. The waiver would remain on the airman’s service record until he or she left the service or removed the tattoo.

Last spring, the service said officials had convened a working group to assess studies and feedback from airmen on how best to address body ink. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said in August the group was also reviewing where the Air Force stood in comparison with its sister services.

“The tattoo policy will be reviewed as part of that greater look,” James said, “and one thing I specifically asked for as part of that review is that we look at what the other services are doing because we’re … in a healthy and friendly competition with our sister services, and we don’t want to lose out on good recruits — at least without thinking it through on what the tattoo situation is.”

Another uniform policy update in a Jan. 23 memo from Lt. Gen. Mark Nowland, deputy chief of staff for operations, said that, effective immediately, airmen wearing the flight duty uniform or its desert variant can roll up or pull up their sleeves if they’re not performing in-flight duties.

When a pilot, navigator or other air crew member wearing a flight duty uniform pulls up his or her sleeves, Nowland said that they must be held in place with the Velcro strap attached to the flight suit. Sleeves must end at or within one inch of the natural bend of the elbow when the airman’s arms hang naturally to the side, he wrote.

But when performing aircrew duties in-flight, Nowland said sleeves must still be rolled down to the wrist.

Air Force spokesman Maj. Bryan Lewis said that airmen were already allowed to roll their flight suit sleeves under once, and that the pulling up of sleeves was the major change.

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