Army Rethinks Tattoo Policy

As noted recently, the Army’s recruiting pool is constrained by a number of factors, one of which is a severe limitation on tatoos. Interestingly, the Army revised its tatoo regulations shortly before that report came out.

The Army has revised its policy on tattoos in an effort to bolster recruitment of highly-qualified individuals who might otherwise have been excluded from joining. Tattoos are now permitted on the hands and back of the neck if they are not “extremist, indecent, sexist or racist.” Army Regulation 670-1, which was modified via a message released Jan. 25, also now specifies:”Any tattoo or brand anywhere on the head or face is prohibited except for permanent make-up.” For women, allowable make-up would be permanent eye-liner, eyebrows and makeup applied to fill in lips, officials said. They said permanent make-up should be conservative and complement the uniform and complexion in both style and color and will not be trendy.

The change was made because Army officials realized the number of potential recruits bearing skin art had grown enormously over the years.

This strikes me as a reasonable balance. My dad got a tatoo on his forearm while he was in Vietnam and went on to serve another sixteen years. Many in his generation did the same. Still, we obviously don’t want people with swastikas and gang insignia tatooed on them, given the problems it would create in the barracks, nor do we want soldiers to be human freak shows.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. legion says:

    This policy has always disturbed me… one would think that the sort of person who, for example, gets a racist slogan tattoo’ed across their hands or a Manson-style swastika on their face would be bounced from military service for other reasons before even getting down to the tattoo itself…

  2. LJD says:

    Why would this policy, installed as a safeguard against recruiting such types, disturb anybody?
    What sort of ‘other reasons’ would such a person be ‘bounced’ for?

    The policy applies to tattoos that are NOT readily visible. So a person could essentially conceal their ‘extremism’ until they had a big gun in hand.

    Background checks are seriously back-logged. I signed up in March, completed training in August, and was assigned to my unit thereafter. My check came through the following March! I had already been through several ranges, and was on my way overseas.

    Further, a person with a questionable affiliation may not be old enough to have generated a criminal record- yet.

    I don’t see the ‘extremist, indecent, sexist or racist’ part changing any time soon. The Army has just allowed previously banned locations.

    It works both ways too. A soldier that might rethink their enlistment can’t get a general discharge for a new tattoo. They have to be willing to get one on their face, or something that might get them hurt later in life. Likely those types of tattoos also carry some UCMJ action as well.

  3. legion says:

    It’s true that a ‘readily visible’ tattoo is not itself a valid reason for keeping someone out of the military. But the article directly connects tattoos and content:

    Tattoos are now permitted on the hands and back of the neck if they are not “extremist, indecent, sexist or racist.”

    as though such tats would be ok if they were someplace else (which, as you note, they aren’t).

    It seems a pretty safe assumption that someone who goes to the trouble to get a racist or extremist tattoo would be a racist or extremist themselves. And I’d think a recruiter who was doing anything like his job would notice something like that before processing his papers.

    It’s just very surreal to picture some random evil bastard, member of white supremacist outfits, epithet-spewing scumbag enlisting, taking tests, being interviewed and indock’ed, and finally showing up at Boot to be told “I’m sorry, you were fine until now, but that ‘I hate N****s’ scrawled on your forehead gets you a ticket home.”

  4. floyd says:

    legion; the fuselage art of world war two would be seen as sexist by a modern you think that something like a “betty-boop” tatoo would be proof of a sexist mentality?

  5. LJD says:


    You don’t hide very well the fact that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Regardless of how you interpret an article, the policy has always been clear, no extremist tattoos anywhere on the body.

    I don’t know what magic a recruiter would use to weed out evil ‘whiteys’, although it is interesting that you automatically assume the racist to be caucasian. That says a lot about your beliefs- please don’t extend your assumptions to me.

    So a guy goes to a recruiter, then to MEPS, where his offending art is uncovered. He does not have an enlistment contract. He is not sworn in. What’s the harm?

  6. legion says:

    And you don’t hide very well the fact that you don’t actually read the comments you’re replying to. I know perfectly well what the policy is on tattoos – what it was in the past, what it changed to about a year ago, and what this new addition does.

    My thought was that a tattoo is not an event in isolation – if someone gets a racist tattoo, it’s generally because they’re an unrepentant racist – and that using the tattoo as a reason for keeping them out of the service, rather than the fact that they could never be trusted to ‘play well with others’ in the first place, seemed odd.

    I have much more heartburn trying to define ‘sexist’ in this context… Someone who’s ‘racist’ I would expect to be overtly hostile towards members of another race; I’m not sure how they define ‘extremist’, but I would expect it has to do with being generally violent and unbalanced. Sexism is a bad thing, and it requires a short leash from the joker’s supervisor, but in my experience such people aren’t actively violent towards women, and their attitudes are easier to overcome than other forms of bigotry. But that’s just MHO.

  7. LJD says:

    So what kind of offensive tattoo do you have that you’re concerned about?

    Seriously though, in your imaginary world, how much time does a recruit spend ‘playing welll with others’ before they get to MEPS, strip down, and show their tattoos to the doc?

    But the article directly connects tattoos and content as though such tats would be ok if they were someplace else (which, as you note, they arenâ??t).

    So what? What does it matter what the article says? This is Army policy. I don’t see where you’re going with your argumeent. Recruiters should have some sort of omnipotence?