One of the most common questions we get is “Can I Join the Army if I have a Tattoo”. This article answers that question and outlines what types of tattoos may keep you from joining the U.S. Army.
You will NEVER be allowed to enlist in the Regular Army, Army Reserves, or Army National Guard if you have any of the non-waivable disqualifying tattoos below. Depending on abundance of recruits, standards may be more strict than listed:
- Tattoos located on the head, face, neck, wrists, hands, or fingers
- Tattoos which are extreme, sexist, indecent, or racist
- Having more than four tattoos located below the knee or between the elbow and wrist
As part of efforts to maintain the professional appearance of the force, the Army dialed back the number, size and placement of tattoos in the March regulation.
Previously authorized tattoos were “grandfathered” in, but Soldiers hoping to become an officer had to get an exception to the policy.
The updated regulation takes into account that previously authorized tattoos should not prevent a Soldier from becoming an officer, but that candidates are to be evaluated based on the whole Soldier concept, or all characteristics of a Soldier.
The rest of the regulation from March remains in place, including the restriction on sleeve tattoos and allowing no more than four tattoos below the elbows or knees. Tattoos below the knees or elbows must be smaller than the size of the Soldier’s palm with fingers extended. Permanent ink or branding on the face, neck, and hands, as well as tattoos that can be deemed extremist, indecent, sexist or racist in nature remain banned.
Here is the latest policy on tattoos from Army Regulation 670-1 (September 2014):
3–3. Tattoo, Branding, and Body Mutilation Policy
Note: This paragraph is punitive with regard to Soldiers. Violation by Soldiers may result in adverse administrative action and/or charges under the provisions of the UCMJ.
a. Tattoos and brands are permanent markings that are difficult to reverse (in terms of financial cost, discomfort, and effectiveness of removal techniques). Before obtaining either a tattoo or a brand, Soldiers should consider talking to unit leaders to ensure that they understand the Army tattoo and brand policy. The words tattoo and brand are interchangeable in regards to this policy.
b. The following types of tattoos or brands are prejudicial to good order and discipline and are, therefore, prohibited anywhere on a Soldier’s body:
(1) Extremist. Extremist tattoos or brands are those affiliated with, depicting, or symbolizing extremist philosophies, organizations, or activities. Extremist philosophies, organizations, and activities are those which 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 under the U.S. Constitution, and Federal or State law (see AR 600–20).
(2) Indecent. Indecent tattoos or brands are those that are grossly offensive to modesty, decency, propriety, or professionalism.
(3) Sexist. Sexist tattoos or brands are those that advocate a philosophy that degrades or demeans a person based on gender.
(4) Racist. Racist tattoos or brands are those that advocate a philosophy that degrades or demeans a person based on race, ethnicity, or national origin.
c. Tattoos or brands, regardless of subject matter, are prohibited on certain areas of the body as follows:
(1) Soldiers are prohibited from having tattoos or brands on the head, face (except for permanent makeup, as provided in paragraph 3–2b(2)), neck (anything above the t-shirt neck line to include on/inside the eyelids, mouth, and ears), wrists, hands, or fingers. Accessing applicants must adhere to this same policy.
(2) Soldiers may have no more than four visible tattoos below the elbow (to the wrist bone) or below the knee. The tattoos in these areas must be smaller than the size of the wearer’s hand with fingers extended and joined with the thumb touching the base of the index finger. The total count of all tattoos in these areas may not exceed a total of four.
(a) A single tattoo is defined as one or multiple tattoos spaced apart that can still be covered by a circle with a diameter of five inches. Tattoos spaced apart that cannot be covered by a circle with a diameter of five inches are considered separate tattoos.
(b) A band tattoo is a tattoo that fully encircles the circumference of the body part. Band tattoos may be no more than two inches in width. Each band tattoo counts as one authorized tattoo (see para 3–3c(2)). Soldiers may have a total of one visible band tattoo on the body. The band tattoo may either be below one elbow (above the wrist bone) or below one knee.
(c) A sleeve tattoo is a tattoo that is a very large tattoo or a collection of smaller tattoos that covers or almost covers a person’s arm or leg. Sleeve tattoos are not authorized below the elbow or below the knee.
(3) Soldiers who have tattoos that were compliant with previous tattoo policies, but are no longer in compliance with paragraph 3–3c(1) through (2)(a) through (c) are grandfathered. Soldiers, who have unauthorized tattoos that were not in compliance with previous policies, are not grandfathered. Tattoos on the face or head (to include on/inside the eyelids, mouth, and ears) are not grandfathered because these locations were never authorized locations for tattoos. Soldiers with tattoos on the head or face must be processed in accordance with paragraph 3–3h, below, unless the Soldier received a written waiver upon entry into the Army.
(a) If a Soldier has one or more tattoos that were required to be grandfathered (on 31 March 2014), then he or she may not obtain any more tattoos or add on to any current tattoo(s) in areas with tattoo limitations. Grandfathered tattoos include: any tattoo on the neck (see glossary), on the wrists, hands, or fingers; any tattoo below the elbows (to the wrist bone) or below the knees which exceed the size of the wearer’s hand (with fingers extended and joined with the thumb touching the base of the index finger); any tattoos below the elbows (to the wrist bone) or below the knees that exceed the total number of authorized tattoos; any other tattoo(s) for which the Soldier received a waiver or exception to policy.
(b) If a Soldier has no tattoos or only tattoos that meet the current policy, then he or she may only obtain tattoos that continue to comply with the current policy.
d. Soldiers may not cover tattoos or brands with bandages or make up in order to comply with the tattoo policy.
e. To protect Soldiers with tattoos authorized prior to 31 March 2014 (grandfathered tattoos), unit commanders were required to document each tattoo/brand in an official memorandum (with a picture of each tattoo/brand appended as a separate enclosure to the memorandum) and ensure the memorandum and enclosures were uploaded to the Soldier’s Army Military Human Resource Record (AMHRR). The uploaded memorandum and photos should only include grandfathered or waived tattoos above the neckline, below the elbows, or below the knees that exceed the current policy. The memorandum and enclosures remain in the Soldier’s record as long as the Soldier continues serving in an active or reserve status. The memorandum and enclosures will serve as an initial documentation of compliance with this policy and may be used by the Soldier or a commander to prove or disprove alleged violations of this policy. The memorandum and enclosures will not be reviewed by promotion boards. Commanders will perform an annual check for new tattoos or brands above the neckline, below the elbows, or below the knees. If any new unauthorized tattoos are found, the Soldier must be processed in accordance with paragraph 3–3h. See DA Pam 670–1 for further instructions regarding the memorandum and enclosures.
f. In addition to the tattoo and brand validation in paragraph 3–3e, commanders will also conduct a simultaneous check for extremist, indecent, sexist, and racist tattoos. See DA Pam 670–1 for further instructions regarding this check. If such tattoos exist, the Soldier must be processed in accordance with paragraph 3–3h.
g. The tattoo restrictions enforced in paragraphs 3–3c(1) through (3) apply equally to officers and warrant officers. Enlisted Soldiers who have tattoos that were compliant with previous tattoo policies (grandfathered tattoos) may request commissioning or appointment, if otherwise eligible. Commanders should continue to evaluate potential applicants on the “whole Soldier” concept in making appropriate recommendations. Soldiers, who have unauthorized tattoos that were not in compliance with previous policies, are not grandfathered. Tattoos on the face or head (to include on/inside the eyelids, mouths, and ears) are not grandfathered because these locations were never authorized locations for tattoos.
h. Commanders will ensure that Soldiers understand the tattoo policy and comply with the requirement to document their tattoos. If a Soldier has any tattoo or brand that is prohibited under paragraph 3–3b, has any tattoo or brand that is not grandfathered because it was not previously authorized such as a tattoo or brand on the face or head, or acquires any new tattoo or brand in violation of paragraph 3–3c(1) through (2), his/her Commander will:
(1) Counsel the Soldier in writing. The DA Form 4856 (Developmental Counseling Form) will state that the Soldier is not in compliance with AR 670–1, paragraph 3–3, and will explain how the tattoo or brand violates the specific prohibition in the policy (for example, the tattoo is extremist because it is a known symbol for a specific hate group; or the new tattoo is in a prohibited location).
(2) Provide the Soldier with no less than a period of 15 calendar days to seek medical and/or legal advice, fully consider all available options, and respond to the counseling, in writing, by informing the commander that he/she will appeal the finding that the tattoo or brand is in violation of policy, pursue medical procedure(s) to have the tattoo or brand removed (or changed, if applicable), or not have the tattoo or brand removed (or changed, if applicable).
(a) If the Soldier elects to appeal the finding that the tattoo or brand is in violation of policy, the commander will forward the matter to the first O–6 commander in the chain of command for a final determination.
(b) If the Soldier elects to have the tattoo or brand removed, the commander will counsel the Soldier on a plan for scheduling the medical procedure(s). Soldiers will receive a reasonable amount of time to schedule the necessary medical procedure(s) and pay for such procedure(s) (if not available at a military treatment facility). Commanders must also determine if operational requirements will delay the medical procedure(s).
(c) If the Soldier declines to have the tattoo or brand removed, the commander will counsel the Soldier in writing. The DA Form 4856 will state that the Soldier’s refusal to remove extremist, indecent, sexist, or racist tattoos or brands anywhere on the body, or refusal to remove any unauthorized tattoo or brand that was not grandfathered in accordance with paragraph 3–3c(3) constitutes a violation of a lawful order and will result in adverse action. The commander will then initiate administrative separation proceedings.
(d) Company-level commanders will make determinations for current Active and Reserve Component Soldiers. This authority will not be delegated further. If a tattoo or brand is discovered to violate this policy after a Soldier self identified his or her tattoos or brands (in accordance with paragraph 3–3e) or the Soldier wishes to appeal the determination, the commander must submit the Soldier’s request to the first O–6 commander in the chain of command for decision.
i. Appropriate authorities for accession determinations are listed in paragraphs (1) through (6) below.
(1) Accessions recruiting battalion commanders (O–5 or above) will make initial entry determinations for new accessions that tattoos or brands comply with this policy for Active Army (AA) and USAR Soldiers. This authority will not be delegated further.
(2) Recruiting and retention managers (O–5 or above) will make initial entry determinations for National Guard Soldiers that tattoos or brands comply with this policy. This authority will not be delegated further.
(3) Commanders (O–5 or above) of Soldiers applying for officer accession programs including Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) and state and federal officer candidate and warrant officer candidate programs will make initial determinations for their Soldiers that their tattoos and brands comply with this policy including the provision listed in paragraph 3–3g, above.
(4) Professors of military science (O–5 or above) will make determinations for ROTC cadets, prior to contracting and prior to commissioning, that tattoos or brands comply with this policy. This authority will not be delegated further.
(5) Superintendant, U.S Military Academy (USMA) will make initial determinations for U.S. Military Academy cadets, prior to enrollment and prior to commissioning, that tattoos or brands comply with this policy. This authority may be delegated further.
(6) The commandants of state and federal officer candidate and warrant officer candidate programs will make determinations for candidates, prior to starting the course and prior to commissioning or appointment, that tattoos or brands comply with this policy. This authority will not be delegated further.
j. Determinations for accessions will be fully documented, in writing. The appropriate accessions determination authority, as identified in paragraphs 3–3 i(1) through (6), above, will document existing tattoos and brands above the neckline, below the elbows, and below the knees in accordance with paragraph 3–3e, above, and ensure the required memorandum and enclosures are uploaded to the Soldier’s AMHRR. A copy of the determination, memorandum and enclosures will be provided to the Soldier or applicant.
k. Exceptions to policy for accessing applicants not meeting the criteria outlined in paragraphs 3–3c(1) through (2)(a) through (c) and 3–3g must be approved by the Director of Military Personnel Management, DCS, G–1. Such exceptions must be documented and uploaded into the Soldier’s AMHRR as described in paragraph 3–3e, above.
l. Soldiers are prohibited from any unauthorized form of body mutilation, which is the willful mutilation of the body or any body parts in any manner. This prohibition does not include authorized medical alterations performed at a medical treatment facility or cosmetic, reconstructive, or plastic surgery procedures the commander normally approves. Examples of unauthorized body mutilation include, but are not limited to, tongue bifurcation (splitting of the tongue), ear gauging (enlarged holes in the lobe of the ear that are greater than 1.6mm), unnatural shaping of teeth, ear pointing (or elfing), scarification (cutting to create intentional scarring), or body modifications for the purpose of suspension (hanging by body hooks). Soldiers who entered the Army with approved body mutilation before 31 March 2014 may request an exception to policy from DCS, G-1. See DA Pam 670–1 for processing guidance.