U.S. airmen or Guardians eager to get inked with an “Aim High, Fly-Fight-Win” or a classic “I heart mom” tattoo now have the opportunity to do so.
Branch officials announced Tuesday that tattoos up to 1 inch in length will now be allowed on the hands and the back of the neck of service members, according to an updated version of the services’ dress and personal appearance policy. Beards, however, are still not permitted.
The services see the policy change as a new way to recruit and retain service members after struggling to bring in new talent over the past year.
“The Department of the Air Force is committed to recruiting talented and qualified individuals, while retaining the experienced [a]irmen and Guardians currently serving,” Air Force officials said Wednesday. “One of the leading barriers currently being tackled is the increased prevalence of hand and neck tattoos among America’s youth.”
Tattoos are currently the third highest disqualification factor for military service, behind physical and citizenship standards, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne S. Bass said Friday in a social media post.
“[T]he number of tattoo disqualifications has risen every year since 2017. ... In fact, 4,240 leads were closed out, due to tattoos, between fiscal year 2018 to 2022. The data shows that 1,352 leads would have qualified for entry into our Air Force every year if hand tattoos had been authorized,” she continued.
The location of acceptable neck tattoos is carefully laid out as follows.
“The neck tattoo will only be placed behind a vertical line at the opening of the ear orifice around the back to a vertical line at the opening of the other ear orifice and includes behind the ear,” the release said.
Under the updated policy, hand, arm, leg, neck and ring tattoos may be visible while wearing any uniform combination. Chest and back body art, however, is not allowed to be visible through any uniform combination, including an open-collar uniform.
Still off limits, meanwhile, are tattoos on the head, face, tongue, lips, eyes and scalp.
Markings anywhere on the body considered “obscene, commonly associated with gangs, extremist, and/or supremacist organizations, or that advocate sexual, racial, ethnic, or religious discrimination” are also prohibited, the service said in the release.
Additionally, a tattoo that “shocks the moral sense, because of its vulgar, filthy, or disgusting nature, or its tendency to incite lustful thought” will not be allowed, the policy states.
The services have slowly been revising their body art standards over the last few years, including last May, when Space Force first began allowing neck tattoos.
In 2017, a single ring band on one hand was permitted for airmen. At that same time, the Air Force decided to no longer enforce its 25 percent tattoo rule, which prohibited tattoos covering more than 25 percent of an exposed body part.
Comments online after the recent announcement, including on the popular r/AirForce Reddit channel, were swift, with some praising the change and others inquiring whether the Air Force may untangle facial hair regulations.
Beards continue to not be prohibited unless grown for medical reasons or authorized via a request for religious accommodation, the guidance states. Last May, however, the Air Force did allow its troops to begin growing out slightly longer mustaches.
Despite the updated tattoo guidelines, service leaders acknowledge the tough road ahead they are still facing to attract new recruits.
“While we met our active-duty recruiting goals last year, record-low unemployment rates and steadily declining familiarity with the U.S. military today leaves us uncertain whether we can achieve our goals this year,” Maj. Gen. Ed Thomas, Air Force Recruiting Service commander, said in the press release. “We are starting to see some positive results of our training program, policy changes and our enhanced marketing efforts, but military recruiting will remain a long-term challenge.”
Jonathan is a staff writer and editor of the Early Bird Brief newsletter for Military Times. Follow him on Twitter @lehrfeld_media