Getting a tattoo is as a much of a rite of passage for military personnel as the ritualized — and oftentimes scalp-gouging — buzz cut at boot camp. And while barber shops have been a mainstay on bases around the globe, soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have never had the convenience of on-base ink — until now.
Nellis Air Force Base, located near Las Vegas, officially opened its own tattoo shop on Sept 4.
“We are always leading from the front and finding new ways to improve the quality of life for our Airmen,” reads a Facebook post. “Team Nellis is now home to the first tattoo studio on an Air Force or Army installation.”
The Air Force, which previously had strict tattoo policies, lifted some of its restrictions in 2017.
“Airmen were previously not allowed to have tattoos on the chest, back, arms and legs that were larger than 25 percent of the exposed body part,” Air Force Times reported. “Now, they can have full tattoo sleeves on their arms or large back pieces if they so choose.”
And while that move gave the go-ahead for personnel like Nellis-based airmen to finally get that full back piece of an A-10 Warthog, personnel still needed to drive the 12 miles to the Las Vegas strip to get it done.
“The Las Vegas area has numerous tattoo parlors that are popular with Nellis Airmen,” Nellis spokesperson Lt. Col. Bryon McGarry told Military Times.
“The decision to open a tattoo parlor on base was the brainchild of the 99 Force Support Squadron. By providing tattoo services on base we can ensure our artists follow the AFI tattoo guidance when providing service for active, guard and reserve Airmen.”
According to McGarry, Nellis is also in the process of opening a second tattoo parlor called “Nellis Ink,” which will “employ independent tattoo artists from across the Las Vegas valley that will provide unique talents at a reduced price to Nellis personnel.”
“The establishment of a tattoo parlor on Nellis AFB is tied directly to Airmen morale,” McGarry said. “People enjoy expressing themselves through tattoos and Nellis Airmen are no different.”
It remains to be seen whether the Air Force’s unique decision will compel the Army, Marine Corps or Navy, with its storied ink history, to do the same.
Ships, anchors, swallows, mermaids, turtle shells and more memorialize special memories or career milestones at sea, such as crossing the equator or eclipsing 5,000 nautical miles for the first time.
Much of the American traditional tattoo and flash style used today originated during the first half of the 20th century thanks to the work of an artist named Norman Keith Collins — better known as Sailor Jerry. Collins, who enlisted in the Navy as a teenager and sailed in the Pacific in the 1930s, meticulously crafted his style over more than four decades of tattooing clients — sailors principal among them.
Will the ritual of crossing the equator soon come with fresh ink, courtesy of a steel beach artist?
No matter what the future holds, it’s a bold move for the Air Force when considering the clientele.
Moto tattoos are often referred to as “stupid stamps” for a reason. For the impulsive junior enlisted airman, accessibility to a lifetime of regret just got a whole lot easier.
Sarah Sicard is a Senior Editor with Military Times. She previously served as the Digitial Editor of Military Times and the Army Times Editor. Other work can be found at National Defense Magazine, Task & Purpose, and Defense News.
Jon Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.