Army Relaxes Tattoo Rules as It Scrambles for New Recruits

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Army soldier tattoos
The Army significantly relaxed its tattoo policy, becoming the military branch with some of the most relaxed rules for ink, as it scrambles to deal with a recruitment crisis. (Xaime Hernandez/U.S. Army)

The Army on Wednesday significantly relaxed its tattoo policy, becoming the military branch with some of the most relaxed rules for ink, as it scrambles to deal with a recruitment crisis.

"Social norms, people are getting more tattoos,” Sgt. Maj. Ashleigh Sykes, who oversees Army uniform policies, told reporters Thursday. “It doesn't stop readiness if someone has a tattoo on the back of their neck."

The new rules allow soldiers to have one visible tattoo on each hand, including the palm, and unlimited tattoos between the fingers as long as they are not visible when their hands are closed. Troops are also authorized to have one ring tattoo on each hand.

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In addition to the changes for hands, soldiers now may have a single tattoo on the back of the neck that does not exceed two inches in all directions, as well as one tattoo behind each ear, so long as they don't exceed 1 inch in size or reach forward of the earlobe.

Tattoos are still forbidden on the face and other parts of the head, with some exceptions for permanent makeup. Tattoos inside the eyelids, mouth and ears are also still unauthorized.

The policy change was largely spurred by the Defense Department's difficulty recruiting new troops into the force this year, as it faces a more competitive civilian job market and more intensive medical screenings for new recruits, and typically rejects many over minor criminal infractions, including the use of marijuana.

Less than one-quarter of young Americans are even qualified for service, often due to obesity.

The service is currently offering recruiting bonuses up to $50,000 and is, for the first time ever, allowing new recruits to pick their first duty station, with some limitations. These incentives come on top of existing benefits such as the GI Bill and VA home loans.

Previously, potential recruits with unauthorized tattoos were often granted waivers to serve. In 2020, roughly 1,400 waivers were requested, 1,100 of which were approved, according to Linden St. Clair, assistant deputy for recruiting and retention for the Army.

But even a generous waiver process takes time, often around two weeks, adding to the sometimes lengthy stretch between someone's initial meeting with a recruiter and taking the oath. There is a network of bureaucracy and background checks that can torpedo that process at any moment, or the potential recruit could just decide to walk away.

"Anything that slows that process down, they can lose interest. This keeps them engaged," St. Clair said. "This is the most challenging recruiting environment in 20 years. It isn't going to be one of those things that causes folks to start flocking into the military."

The Army's move comes amid a string of grooming standard changes across most of the services. The Air Force, for example, allowed its troops to have longer mustaches. Sykes said the Army is not considering adopting that policy. The Space Force introduced its own tattoo policy in May, allowing Guardians to have a single neck tattoo.

-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.

Related: Military Services Lighten Up on Facial Hair and Uniforms in New Policies

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