U.S. Army Tattoo Requirements

  • Written By Dan Hunter on December 8, 2019
    Last Updated: November 27, 2020

The US Army is a uniform organization with rigid rules and expectations. It seems like every aspect of soldiers’ lives is controlled — diet, exercise, clothes, haircuts. The Army has control over every basic aspect of a soldier’s appearance.

Bearing this in mind, another question arises thanks to modern society. Body modification is an increasingly popular trend — but what does the US Army think of tattooed recruits?


The US Army tattoo policy states that certain types of offensive tattoos are strictly prohibited. No tattoos above the T-shirt neckline or below the wrist are allowed. The knees and elbows must also be clear of tattoos. Not adhering to the rules can find you discharged from the Army.

Tattoos and The Military

Tattoos have always been a staple in military culture. You’ve probably heard the term “war paint” — ancient tribes have been marking their warriors for over 5,000 years. Celtic warriors were adorned with Woad tattoos, as an example. These ancient warriors may have been the origin of tattooed fighters.

It’s believed that Martin Hildebrandt, a German immigrant, opened the first US tattoo parlor. His stop was situated in New York City in 1846. He then traveled the country, tattooing soldiers who’d fought in the Civil War.

It’s said that 90 percent of US Navy sailors had tattoos by 1925. This tattooing trend later spread to the army troops on land and across all branches of the military.

Tattoos in the Army — What’s Not Allowed

Tattoos aren’t fully banned in the Army, but some are outright not allowed. You can’t cover these with bandages or makeup, either. If you have a tattoo that’s prohibited, or even in the wrong place, you’re out.

Racist Tattoos

You’d think that these days people would have the common sense to stay away from racial discrimination. Sadly, you just can’t bank on that. The US Army disallows any tattoos or brands that are discriminatory against race, ethnicity or nationality. 

Sexist Tattoos

Yet again, this is something you’d think would be uncommon. Unfortunately, if they have to put it in their regulations, then they’ve likely seen it. 

Any tattoos or brands that demean a person based on their gender is forbidden. 

Indecent Tattoos

The Army’s regulations don’t provide examples of indecent tattoos. Indecent covers any brand or tattoo that’s offensive to modesty, decency, priority or professionalism.

Extremist Tattoos

Extremist tattoos encourage discrimination all across the board. They’re tattoos or brands that depict, symbolize or are affiliated with extremist philosophes, organizations or activities.

Anything that shows unlawful means of depriving individual rights falls into this category. 

Tattoos in the Army — What’s Allowed

Generally, anything goes with what you can depict, so long as it’s within the above regulations. Once within those guidelines, it’s not the picture that matters anymore, but the placement.

The Army also allows permanent makeup for women, as long as it follows their rules on makeup. Tattoos used for permanent eyebrows are allowed so long as they’re modest and conservative. 

Visible tattoos aren’t allowed on your:

  • Head
  • Face
  • Neck, above the T-shirt line
  • Inner eyelids, mouth or ears
  • Wrists
  • Hands

Exceptions

Ring tattoos are allowed, as long as it’s one per hand. These tattoos can’t extend beyond where a ring would normally be.

What Happens If They Find out You Have a Forbidden Tattoo?

There are in-depth procedures set in place for all physical regulations in the Army.

If found to have a forbidden tattoo, the soldier is counseled on the tattoo rules. The soldier then has three options:

  • Have the tattoo removed
  • Appeal the case
  • Discharge

If a soldier has a tattoo that’s deemed prohibited, they’ll receive written notice from a commanding officer about it. After this, the solder has 15 days to make their decision. 

An O-6 level officer — or captain — deals with appeals for final determination.

The tattooed soldier is responsible for all costs if they choose to remove the tattoo. This includes the procedure itself and the travel it takes to get there. 

Administrative separation proceedings will begin to terminate the service of a soldier who refuses to remove their tattoo.

Has the Army Ever Changed These Rules?

The Army changed these rules once, during the Iraq War. It needed recruits, so it started allowing tattoos on the hands and back of the neck. Once the war was over, they could afford to be more selective with troops. Their old policies were reinstated.

The policy was met with backlash from troops online. For many of them, tattoos are more than just an individualistic expression. They get the initials of fallen soldiers and the dates they were killed inked into their skin. This isn’t against policy, but it’s an argument for allowing troops to be freely tattooed.

So, Why the Rule?

The sense of uniformity in the Army — as with all armed forces — is a mainstay of the code and discipline that underpins all that the Army is about. Tattoo restrictions are all part of that — they distract from uniformed service. Soldiers are expected to fit in neatly, without looking odd — none of them should draw particular attention.

There are arguments that troops should be judged on their abilities and performance, rather than their tattoos. This is the same old argument you’ll find anywhere that relates to aspects of physical appearance. Although logically true, you could suppose the Army has its reasons for being so strict.

Going More In-Depth

Since more people have tattoos than ever before, the Army’s tattoo policy has had to relax to accommodate. It’s been updated for 2020, now with more leeway than ever before. Despite this, its restrictions are still rigorously enforced.

Tattoos used to be limited to four below the knee and elbow. Now, there are no limits to the number of tattoos a soldier can have. They were once restricted to being the size of your outstretched hand. This policy has also been revoked.

Arm Tattoos

Arm tattoos have to be at least 2 inches above and 1 inch below the elbow. This makes sleeve tattoos impossible, but you can still go crazy with your ink in the Army.

So long as you stay away from prohibited designs, you could tattoo from the wrist to an inch below the elbow.

Leg Tattoos

Leg tattoos have to be 1 inch above or 2 inches below the knee, which is similar to the arm ruling. It seems the Army wants the elbows and knees ink-free.

Are Army Officers Allowed to Have Tattoos?

Yes, Army officers can have tattoos. Their regulations are the same as those for the soldiers. 

Commanding officers were previously held to a higher physical standard. Now, they can be tattooed more freely, and have responsibility over tattooed soldiers. It’s up to the commanding officers to determine if a soldier’s tattoo conforms to the rules or not.

The Bottom Line

Although they’re still taboo to some, general society is becoming more accepting of tattoos. The Army can’t be lost behind the general public, so they’re taking steps to catch up. Now a soldier’s tattoos can be any size and any number, so long as they comply with placement and content regulations.

Maybe in the future they’ll start allowing elbow and knee tattoos, too. Full sleeve tattoos are allowed in other military branches, so why not in the Army? If you have questions about the Army’s tattoo policy, contact a local recruiter. They should be able to give you a good idea if you or your loved one’s tattoos are against regulations.