Immortalizing Memories: The Marine 'Moto Tat'


Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow, Calif. -- One way Marines display their caliber of dedication to their Corps lasts a bit longer than a t-shirt or a bumper sticker. It can’t be lost in a move to a new duty station and it certainly can’t be broken by knocking it off a table.   The ‘moto tat,’ or motivational tattoo, has been around much longer than the Marines who serve today. For some, it’s a reminder of their glory days. To others, it’s a tribute to a fallen brother or sister. Regardless of reason, military tattoos often hold deep meaning to their owner.   According to, servicemembers getting tattoos to remember their time in the military date back to at least the 1800s. Sailors, for example, would get different tattoos annotating professional achievements they had reached such as crossing the equator or sailing across the Atlantic Ocean.

Today, the principles of remembering your service with a tattoo still exist, but have since spread to other services. In the Marine Corps, it’s not uncommon to see bulldogs or the words ‘Semper Fi’ branded across someone’s skin.   “I got my first Marine tattoo right after boot camp,” said Gunnery Sgt. Dustin Hamilton, a safety specialist on Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow. “I got the traditional Marine Corps emblem. It’s a matching tattoo I have with my brother and dad,” added Hamilton, whose family comes from a long line of Marines.   The amount of pride Marines have for their service is astonishing, enough to compel them to show that pride for life … on skin.   “Everyone has their own reasons for getting a tattoo, whether it’s for pride, to represent adversity, or something else,” explained Gunnery Sgt. Chad Webb, the administrative chief on the base. “Mine was simple; the Marine Corps is a brotherhood. It’s something to be proud of. Why not get a tattoo for that,” Webb said in reference to the dog tags he has tattooed on his lower leg.   Although pride and motivation is a driving factor for some of these tattoos, a more serious and heartfelt rationale is the reason behind others. Many Marines immortalize someone they served with, one who paid with the ultimate sacrifice in combat.

“I have a pair of boots with a rifle for a mutual friend of my brother and I,” explained Hamilton. “My brother’s unit and mine were both in Iraq in 2005 and 2006. His unit lost 10 Marines in one week, including a friend of ours from home,” he added.  After Hamilton returned to the states from deployment, he got the traditional boots and rifle to pay homage to his late friend, he explained.

The tattoo recipients aren’t the only ones affected by the tattoos paying tribute to someone. Tattoo artists see many different kinds of ink tributes and often hear the stories behind them.   “I’ve been tattooing for about three years now and I’ve done at least 50 military tattoos,” said Dallin Hubler, a tattoo artist from Victorville, Calif. “I’ve seen a lot of different types, from the eagle, globe and anchor, to the Army star. What I like most about [the tattoos] though is hearing the stories behind them,” he added.

Hubler explained how fascinating he thought it was for servicemembers to get tattoos to remember their time spent in the military. The stories told to Hubler are so important to the owners, they want to have something of permanence.   Even after their service has concluded, a motivational tattoo remains, allowing passersby to see the pride Marines have.   “It’s definitely a pride thing, said Ramon Mejia, a field training officer with the Marine Corps Police Department on base, when talking about a bulldog tattoo on his shoulder he got when he served. “It’s a symbol of what you’ve accomplished,” the retired Marine staff sergeant added.   More than 20 years later, Mejia added how he hasn’t regretted his decision to get his tattoo once.   “You can’t regret pride or escape what you’ve done,” Mejia said. “I like telling the world who I am. It’s like a Picasso painting; the painting’s already there, you just need to add the color. With Marines, we’re all here. It just needs to be brought out in all of us,” he added.   Years later, when a Marine has hung up his or her uniform and wants to reflect on their time serving with their fellow brothers and sisters, reminiscing can be found no more than arm’s reach away. All he or she has to do is look at their skin and remember the reason the tattoo was put there in the first place.

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