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New limits on ink: Brass moves to restrict tattoos below elbow, knee

Sep. 30, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
US-UNREST-ANNIVERSARY
Soldiers work out in a gym in Afghanistan. One has a tattoo sleeve on his lower arm. Army leaders are moving to restrict new tattoos below the elbow and knee. (Tony Karumba/AFP via Getty Images)
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New tattoo rules headed your way are expected to ban ink below the elbow and knee, and if you have ink in the wrong places, the Army will make a record of it.

New tattoo rules headed your way are expected to ban ink below the elbow and knee, and if you have ink in the wrong places, the Army will make a record of it.

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New tattoo rules headed your way are expected to ban ink below the elbow and knee, and if you have ink in the wrong places, the Army will make a record of it.

And if any of your tattoos are deemed offensive, you’ll pay to have them removed.

Chances are you may have heard that changes are coming, and also heard some bad scoop mixed in with the good as the word has spun through the rumor mill. So Army Times spoke with senior leadership and personnel officials to set the record straight.

The policy change was approved by the Army and is awaiting the signature of Army Secretary John McHugh, as of press time, and he can make any changes he wants before he signs off on it.

The policy would go into effect immediately after the secretary signs off. The Army doesn’t like to say much before policy changes become official with that signature.

But a clear picture is beginning to take shape, and here are some key things you need to know:

■First, if soldiers have ink in the wrong places, they will be grandfathered in to the new policy with the tattoos they have now.

But this doesn’t give you a free pass for more ink.

The tattoos you have in the forbidden zones will be noted at the time the policy is enacted. If you show up with a new tattoo, expect to pay the price.

This is the same approach taken when tattoos on the hand were prohibited in 2002.

Details aren’t available yet on how the tattoos will be recorded and who will do the recording. But noncommissioned officers are responsible for maintaining the rules, and in the past, they have had soldiers stripped down to their skivvies to record the tattoos on their bodies.

■There has been a lot of talk that the new rules will prohibit tattoos below the elbow or knee. That is very likely, sources say.

But McHugh can revert to the 2006 rules, which would mean the forbidden zones would be the head, hands, face and neck above the Class A uniform collar.

■You will face punishment for any tattoos found on your body that are deemed indecent, sexist, racist or extremist. And they must be removed — at your expense — if you want to stay in uniform. This policy is not new; the news is there’s no getting around it anymore.

■Most of the “new” rules are actually a return to the rules in place before 2006, which were softened to allow people with tattoos on their hands or neck to join the Army as the service needed to beef up by about 80,000 troops.

In trouble for ink

What happens if a soldier has one of the aforementioned tattoos or gets a tattoo in a forbidden area?

Commanders cannot order the removal of a tattoo or brand, according to Army policy. But the commander must counsel the soldier and afford him the opportunity to seek medical advice about removal or alteration of the tattoo.

If the soldier still refuses to remove or alter the tattoo, the soldier will be discharged. Policy is not clear on the type of discharge, but “willful disobedience of a lawful order and failure to correct it when given the opportunity doesn’t sound like the criteria for an honorable discharge to me,” a personnel official said.

The need for troops is no longer dire — the Army passed fiscal 2013 recruitment goals a month early — so the Army is reverting to previous policies. For example, policies that once allowed recruits with General Educational Development diplomas or certain criminal offenses have been rescinded.

Plenty of soldiers won’t be happy with the changes. But don’t expect a lot of sympathy from the older soldiers who will enforce these rules. They’ve done this drill a time or two. Most notably, many had to stand in their underwear and have all tattoos identified in the 1990s because of a string of extremist and racist tattoos cropping up.

And most of them contributed perspective to Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond Chandler, who recently led the comprehensive review of AR 670-1.

Chandler is not on a crusade to rid the Army of tattoos. He has children with tattoos — in fact, one son has a sleeve. But the top enlisted soldier has seen a wide variety of questionable ink while touring Army posts — everything from vulgar nudity and foul language to large radiation symbols covering the back of a soldier’s head.

And now it’s time for the Army to project a uniform and professional soldier, he said.

“The Army is a professional organization,” he told Army Times on Sept. 26. “It is a uniformed service where the public judges a soldier’s discipline in part by the manner in which he or she wears the uniform, as well as by personal appearance.

“A neat and well-groomed appearance is fundamental to the Army profession and contributes to building the pride and esprit essential for an effective military force,” he added. “Also, a vital ingredient of the Army’s strength and military effectiveness is the pride and self-discipline that American soldiers bring to their service through a conservative military image.”

So, where can you find all the rules when the dust settles and the secretary has signed off?

It might surprise you to learn that tattoo parlors near your post are typically up to date on the rules and regulations. They want to stay in the good graces of post leadership, and don’t want to put a work of art on a soldier that will only get him in trouble before it is covered up or removed.

If you are looking for the official word, rules are spelled out in Army Regulation 670-1. That is where you will find the new policy once it is signed.

The updated rules will be welcome, personnel officials said, because the current policy does not include the more than three dozen All Army Action messages published since 2005, which further cloud the issue.

But you can go there now to find rules regarding tattoos or brands defined as “extremist, indecent, sexist or racist.”

What is offensive?

While there inevitably will be cases that call for a subjective opinion, any ink that falls into these categories will quickly get you called on the carpet:


Extremist tattoos. Those affiliated with, depicting or symbolizing extremist philosophies, organizations or activities that advocate racial, gender or ethnic hatred or intolerance; advocate, create or engage in illegal discrimination based on race, color, gender, ethnicity, religion or national origin; or advocate violence or other unlawful means of depriving individual rights.


Indecent tattoos. Those that are grossly offensive to modesty, decency or propriety; shock the moral sense because of their vulgar, filthy or disgusting nature or tendency to incite lustful thought; or tend reasonably to corrupt morals or incite libidinous thoughts.


Sexist tattoos. Those that advocate a philosophy that degrades or demeans a person based on gender, but that may not meet the same definition of “indecent.”


Racist tattoos. Those that advocate a philosophy that degrades or demeans a person based on race, ethnicity or national origin.

If there is not a clear case for whether a tattoo violates these guidelines, the decision could end up with the convening authority of whatever nonjudicial punishment or court-martial the soldier would receive.

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