Can You Have Tattoos in the Military? What To Know
There’s this misconception that tattoos are strictly not allowed in the military because it’s “defacing government property,” but this isn’t true. While there are specific rules for having tattoos in the military, the answer to “Can you have tattoos in the military?” is not a hard and fast “no.” In fact, for the most part, it’s a “yes!” Keep reading to see what we mean.
Can You Have Tattoos in the Military?
Many people complain that the rules around military tattoos are too convoluted to be able to fully understand, so we’re gonna do our best to simplify them for you. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) published their findings on rules about tattoos in the military with a bunch of helpful graphics that can help us all better understand the military’s standing on this subject.
Are tattoos allowed in the military? Yes (though there are stipulations surrounding the size, content, and placement of tattoos). But rest assured that no jurisdiction states that getting tattoos in the military is “defacing government property.”
General Rules and Prohibited Tattoos
Head, face, and neck tattoos in the military are prohibited for all branches – mostly.
What about other places? Can you have hand tattoos in the military? For most branches, the answer is no. The military has banned hand tattoos for a long time.
However, the Army recently updated their policy on hand tattoos and neck tattoos in the midst of their recruiting crisis. Now, Soldiers are allowed to have one tattoo on each hand so long as it does not exceed 1 inch in length. They can also have one tattoo on the back of their neck as long as it doesn’t exceed 2 inches in length.
As a general rule, the Armed Forces prohibits “tattoos that are prejudicial to good order and discipline, or that are of a nature to bring discredit to their service. Specifically, all of the policies prohibit content related to extremism, sexism, and racism. Additionally, the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard also prohibit content related to drugs and gangs, and the Air Force prohibits content related to gangs.”
Each branch has the power to determine if a tattoo breaks these content violations or not.
Where Are Tattoos Allowed or Not Allowed?
Here are more rules about having tattoos in the military:
- Hands: prohibited by the Marine Corps, Air Force, and Space Force; permitted with limitations by the Army and Coast Guard; fully permitted by the Navy.
- Neck: prohibited by the Marine Corps and Air Force; permitted with limitations by the Army, Navy, Space Force, and Coast Guard.
- Head & Face: prohibited by all branches.
- Arms & Torso: fully permitted by all branches.
- Fingers: permitted with limitations by the Army, Marine Corps, Air Force, Space Force, and Coast Guard; fully permitted by the Navy.
- Legs: fully permitted by all branches.
The graphic below from GAO shows these rules in an easily digestible format as of 2022.
As you can see, tattoos on the arms and torso are allowed in the military, as these are often covered up by standard-issue uniforms, anyway. Additionally, the Navy is the most lenient of the branches as far as tattoos are considered. So, if you have a lot of tattoos and want to join the military, the Navy will be your best bet.
So why can’t you have tattoos in the military in some places but you can in others? Well, at the end of the day, the military is a job. No, it’s nowhere near the same as civilian jobs as far as duties and lifestyle are concerned, but they still want to make sure “employees” (or service members, in this instance) appear professional. The reasoning behind tattoo restrictions is similar to the very specific rules regarding military uniforms and dress.
Military Tattoo Waiver
If you want to join a branch that’s more strict on tattoo placement but already have one that’s not allowed, you may be able to get a tattoo waiver. These are typically only granted when the tattoo in question only breaks size or location rules – not content rules. Don’t expect to be able to join ANY branch of the military with sexually explicit, extremist, racist, or sexist tattoos.
Each military branch has a tattoo waiver available for recruits except for the Coast Guard. Additionally, for the Air Force and Space Force, waivers are only given to those recruits who exemplify exceptional qualifications and abilities.
When it comes to those already in the service who want to get a tattoo that may fall outside the acceptable rules, waivers are much less commonly given. There are no available tattoo waivers for those already serving in the Navy, Air Force, Space Force, or Coast Guard, and the Army waiver is incredibly narrow and hard to get.
So can you have tattoos in the military? Yes! But each branch has different, specific rules on where you can get them. Make sure to research your branch’s rules closely, and reach out to a recruiter or your CO to clarify any questions that may come up.