Tattoos are a form of self-expression for many. And while exerting your individuality is positive, it also can be a detriment when blending in with your surroundings is crucial. Not standing out is one of the fundamental principles behind tattoo policies in the armed services.

Another guideline is the prevention of offensive subjects or writings permanently displayed on a soldier. Each military group explicitly decrees that no offensive, hateful, or discriminatory tattoos will be allowed, whether visible or not.

These policies may seem stringent, but they are much more relaxed these days, compared to decades ago when body art was not as popular. Now recruiters are signing up enlistees where one out of three has a tattoo.

Each branch has its own set of standards, with the Marines publishing a 32-page booklet on what is allowed. Here are a few excerpts from policy publications from the varying organizations:


“Sailors will be allowed to have neck tattoos, sleeves and even markings behind their ears under the new policy, the most lenient of any military service. Only their heads are off limits under the new policy… Have multiple or large tattoos below the elbow or knee, including the wrists and hands, effectively allowing sleeve tattoos that can be seen even while wearing short sleeve uniforms.”

“Have one tattoo on their neck, which includes behind the ear, and it may not exceed 1 inch in length or height in either or both directions.”

“The service reiterated these in the updated policy, banning ‘tattoos that are obscene, sexually explicit, and or advocate discrimination based on sex, race, religion, ethnicity, or national origin.’”

Source: USA Today


The Army changed its tattoo regulations in 2015 when recruiting declined because of the increase in tattoo frequency on potential soldiers. ​The Army regulations apply to both tattoos and brands, which the Army defines as “permanent markings that are difficult to reverse.”

Not allowed: Extremist tattoos encourage that could encourage discrimination based on numerous factors, including race, gender and religion; advocate violence or “other unlawful means of depriving individual rights under the U.S. Constitution, and Federal or State law.”

Location is also a factor. No tattoos on your head, face, neck above the t-shirt line, inside your eyelids, mouth or ears, on wrists or hands.

The Army will allow one ring tattoo on each hand, although it must not extend beyond where a ring naturally would rest on your finger.

Source: Article

Air force:

Tattoos will now ( as of January, 2017) be allowed on the chest, back, arms and legs and will not be restricted to size. 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, and that’s for both hands, as in a wedding ring tattoo.

Tattoos, brandings or body markings on the head, neck, face, tongue, lips and or scalp will still be prohibited. As is anything that’s inappropriate, racist, sexist, or contain an inappropriate picture.

Source: Article


Tattoo bands, either partial or full, are authorized for enlisted Marines, as long as they occupy a maximum of 1/4 of the arm or leg. Prohibited items are full, 1/2, and 1/4 sleeves, if visible in issued physical training gear. Tattoos visible in the PT uniform must be no larger than Marine’s hand.

Not allowed: anything considered sexist, racist, extremist, vulgar, eccentric, or otherwise offensive is prohibited. No ink is permitted on the head, neck, hands, fingers and wrists, and tattoos on the inside of the mouth.

Enlisted Marines who had sleeves prior to the revision, while they can still be promoted and continue service, are no longer eligible for enlisted-to-officer conversion programs, recruiting duty, or Marine Corps Security Guard duty.

Source: Booklet