Coast Guard Changes Policy to Permit Hand, Finger Tattoos

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(U.S. Coast Guard/Chief Petty Officer John Masson)
(U.S. Coast Guard/Chief Petty Officer John Masson)

For the second time in two years, the Coast Guard is relaxing its policy on tattoos in what officials say is an effort to widen the pool of eligible service recruits.

According to a new policy document released Thursday, Coast Guard recruits and current service members may now sport chest tattoos as long as they are not visible above the collar of the Coast Guard operational dress uniform's crew-neck T-shirt.

The new policy also allows a wider range of finger tattoos. One finger tattoo per hand is now authorized, although the location of the tattoo is still restricted. It must appear between the first and second knuckle. And ring tattoos, which were the only kind of finger tattoo previously authorized, will be counted as a hand's finger tattoo, according to the new guidance. Thumb tattoos are still off-limits.

Finally, in a change from previous guidance, hand tattoos are also allowed. While palm tattoos remain out of bounds, Coasties and recruits can sport a tattoo on the back of the hand as long as it is no more than one inch in any dimension. One finger and one hand tattoo are allowed on each hand, according to the new policy.

The Coast Guard released a graphic to explain its new tattoo regulations. Graphic via the Coast Guard
The Coast Guard released a graphic to explain its new tattoo regulations. Graphic via the Coast Guard

"I am pleased to see the Coast Guard's new tattoo policy reinforces a professional appearance to the public while adopting some of the very same tattoo standards that are now acceptable among the public," Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Jason Vanderhaden said in a statement. "The new tattoo policy will expand our recruiting candidate pool and provide those already serving in the Coast Guard with a few new options."

The Coast Guard last updated its tattoo policy in 2017 with rule tweaks that offered a little more leniency. Chest tattoos were allowed to creep up to one inch above the V-neck undershirt, where previously they had to remain hidden; ring tattoos were authorized.

Related: Marine Commandant Opens Up About Controversial Tattoo Policy

Unlike some other services, the Coast Guard has not restricted tattoo size of percentage of body coverage on tattooable areas, but the 2017 policy stated that brands could be no larger than four by four inches and could not be located on the head, face or neck.

The most recent policies serve to relax strict regulations handed down in 2005 to address overabundant body ink.

"The 1940s, party-hard sailor is not the image we're going for," Chief Petty Officer Keith Alholm, a spokesman in the Coast Guard's Seattle-based 13th District, told the Kitsap Sun at the time.

The 2005 rules -- the first update to the Coast Guard's tattoo policy in three decades -- limited Coasties to tattooing no more than 25% of an exposed limb, among other restrictions.

The other military services have all issued updates in recent years to address concerns in the active force and current trends in the recruitable population.

In 2016, then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter warned that services' tattoo policies could be preventing otherwise eligible young people from serving. As the percentage of prospective recruits who can meet fitness, education and background standards shrinks, the service branches have even greater incentive to remove secondary barriers to service.

The Army loosened its tattoo policy in 2015, saying society's view of body ink was changing; the Navy thrilled sailors with a significantly more lenient set of rules in 2016. The Marine Corps also released a relaxed 2016 tattoo update, and the Air Force did a 2017 about-face, allowing airmen to sport coveted sleeves.

Military officials have said they're working to find the line between professionalism and practicality when it comes to tattoos.

"This is not an episode of [History Channel show] Vikings, where we're tattooing our face. We're not a biker gang, we're not a rock and roll band. We're not [Maroon 5 lead singer] Adam Levine," then-Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller told Military.com in 2017. "You can get 70 percent of your body covered with ink and still be a Marine. Is that enough?"

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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