Navy: Sailors can tattoo away, with limits
Service clarifies policy, cancels ‘25 percent rule’
By LISA BURGESS | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 30, 2006
ARLINGTON, Va. — Sailors who have been coveting that “kimono” full back tattoo can go ahead and get it inked — but keep it decent, below the level of your T-shirt collar, and don’t forget to get it recorded in your permanent file, according to a new policy clarification issued by the Navy.
The clarification involves Navy regulations regarding tattoos, body art, mutilations and dental ornamentation and was issued in a message from the chief of Navy personnel on April 21.
The message was issued because the Navy’s 2003 policy “really wasn’t as clear as we’d have liked it to be,” in particular regarding tattoos, according to Master Chief Robert Carroll, Command Master Chief for the Chief of Naval Personnel.
The major change to the policy involves the amount of skin a sailor or potential recruit can have tattooed.
The 2003 rule still holds that says the size of the tattoo on a sailor’s lower arm — the portion visible in uniform — can be no larger than the wearer’s hand, fingers closed.
And because women are required to wear skirts, they are not allowed to have tattoos on their lower legs that are larger than their closed fist, Carroll told Stars and Stripes in a telephone interview Friday.
But the clarification eliminates the 2003 policy’s “25 percent rule,” which said that no more than 25 percent of any limb or part of the body that does not show while in uniform, such as the back or torso, could be tattooed.
Instead, the new rule simply says tattoos may not be visible through the Navy’s summer white uniform.
Earlier this year the Army relaxed its tattoo policies to allow head and neck art.
But the Navy still forbids tattoos on the head, face, neck or scalp.
The neck area “is any portion visible when wearing a crew neck T-shirt or open-collar uniform shirt,” the regulation states.
Navy officials considered following the Army’s lead, but decided not to because “for Americans [head and neck tattoos] are a fad, and it’s peaked out,” Carroll said.
As in the past, any tattoo, body art or brand that is obscene, sexually explicit or advocates discrimination of any sort is prohibited.
The clarification also requires any sailor who has not already done so to have his or her tattoos documented in personal medical records within the next 180 days.
Meanwhile, the clarification makes it clear that the ban against cosmetic dental ornamentation — gold, platinum or other veneers or caps for decorative purposes — also holds.
But sailors who sport removable teeth caps — the “pull-out grills” popularized by hip-hop artists — are not violating any rules, “as long as they don’t wear them in uniform and they take out the bling-bling when they get back to the ship,” Carroll said.
When making policy about body art, Carroll said, the Navy’s senior leaders understand that it’s “all about trends, and trends come and go.
“You don’t necessarily want to set precedent over something you don’t want to live with” in the long run, he said.
The clarification not only eliminates confusion for commanders who weren’t quite sure what the rules allowed, it represents “a compromise,” between allowing young sailors freedom to do what they wish with their own bodies, and “the image we want our sailors to project to the world,” Carroll said.
“We have to recognize that young people are young people,” Carroll said. “They make mistakes, things that they don’t consider mistakes at the time. As more mature leaders, we recognize that. I mean, we’ve been there, we’ve done that.”
“But we still have a Navy to maintain, we still have a nation to defend. So there are certain things that we have to take into account when it comes to young people, and we have to look for compromises.”