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Air Force Relaxes Tattoo Policy, Allows Sleeves

The Air Force is changing its rules on tattoos. U.S. Air Force photo illustration
The Air Force is changing its rules on tattoos. U.S. Air Force photo illustration

The Air Force on Tuesday announced it will no longer limit the size of airmen's body tattoos, in a significant shift that opens up the door to popular sleeve tattoos.

The policy change is slated to take effect Feb. 1.

The change in regulations will allow both arm and leg sleeves, Lt. Gen. Gina Grosso, deputy chief of staff for Air Force manpower, personnel and services, told Military.com in an exclusive interview Friday at the Pentagon.

"As a next step in this evolution, we are opening the aperture on certain medical accession criteria and tattoos while taking into account our needs for worldwide deployability and our commitment to the profession of arms," Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said in a statement.

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The service is axing its "25 percent rule," which prohibits tattoos that cover more than a quarter of an exposed body part. That rule was added to the Air Force Guidance Memorandum, or AFI 36-2903, "Dress and Personal Appearance," in 1998, then updated with a measuring tool in 2010, said Air Force spokesman Maj. Bryan Lewis.

Tattoos will now be allowed on the chest, back, arms and legs and will not be restricted to size, according to Grosso. "Size will not be a factor anymore," she said.

Grosso added, "Old policy, current policy, anything that's inappropriate, racist, sexist, inappropriate picture -- those have never been acceptable and will still not be acceptable."

Tattoos, brandings or body markings on the head, neck, face, tongue, lips and or scalp will still be prohibited.

There will be no restriction on the arm up to an individual's wrist, Grosso added. But "the only tattoo you can have on your hand is on one finger, and that's for both hands," she said. An example of this would be a wedding ring tattoo.

"You can't have it on two fingers -- out of your 10 fingers, you can have it on one finger," she said.

Current airmen with existing hand tattoos that were authorized under the previous policy will be grandfathered in under the old policy standards.

The service previously allowed tattoos to be visible while in PT gear, but not service dress or other formal uniforms. If an airman had an "excessive" tattoo -- exceeding the 25 percent rule -- but was granted a waiver by his or her command, the individual was required to cover up the tattoo while in uniform. The waiver would remain on the airman's service record until he or she left the service or removed the tattoo.

Commanders still have authority to require an airman to remove a tattoo if it is deemed offensive or to cover it up during a ceremony, Grosso said.

"If a commander felt like it would be more appropriate to have everybody in a standard uniform, they could ask an airman to cover the tattoo for certain events; they have that authority. But not to [force them to] remove it," she said. "We trust commanders to do the right thing in those situations."

The same goes for singular finger tattoos, she added.

Airmen cannot tattoo themselves with symbols linked to hate groups, gangs, extremist or supremacist organizations, or anything the Air Force classifies to be obscene, or which advocates sexual, racial, ethnic or religious discrimination, the policy states. The Air Force Office of Special Investigations is tasked with reviewing designs flagged as offensive, but doesn't maintain a running list of them, an official said.

"If presented with a request from Air Force officials, AFOSI would research the symbol to determine if it has been reported to law enforcement in the past as associated with hate groups," OSI spokeswoman Linda Card said. "We defer to DOJ, FBI, and ATF for an official stance on any symbol's association with hate groups."

The service reviews dress and appearance policy every four years. With Defense Secretary Ash Carter's efforts to bring in and retain a diverse array of service members -- his "Force of the Future" initiative -- the policy changes "dovetailed together" to "get access to more talented young people," Grosso said.

"The Air Force, the Army and the Navy are all fairly similar [in their tattoo policies]," Grosso said. "The Marine Corps right now is really the most conservative, I would say."

Last spring, the service said officials had convened a working group to assess studies and feedback from airmen on how best to address body ink. James in August said the group was also reviewing where the Air Force stood in comparison to its sister services.

"The tattoo policy will be reviewed as part of that greater look," James said, "and one thing I specifically asked for as part of that review is that we look at what the other services are doing because we're ... in a healthy and friendly competition with our sister services, and we don't want to lose out on good recruits -- at least without thinking it through on what the tattoo situation is," she told Air Force Times during an editorial board at the time.

Grosso said that the Air Force recruiting service also collected data for a couple of months on people coming in to inquire about joining the service.

"Almost one out of every two people coming in had a tattoo," she said, "and about one out of every five needed a waiver -- for the size."

While not a scientific study -- Grosso did not say how many people total were asked, just that potential recruits casually spoke with recruiters about the subject -- the basic survey data on a future retention aspect "showed what we're experiencing, that we were clearly excluding people that were otherwise qualified," she said.

Editor's Note: This story was updated to correct a reference to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations' tattoo review process in the 16th paragraph.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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