A month ago, the Navy eased its tattoo rules for the first time in a decade — and hoopla ensued.

Sailors were excited they could finally have ink sleeves covering their forearms down to their wrists, even their hands. And Navy officials were enthused they could appeal more broadly to a generation that favors body art.

"What it boiled down to was being honest with ourselves about the realities of the society we live in today," said Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (AW/NAC) Mike Stevens, who was a driving force for the changes. "And if we're a reflection of that society, we have to accept that and have policies that reflect those realities."

Stevens said he'd heard some complaints from sailors over the past three years he has visiting bases as the Navy's top enlisted. That prompted a discussion with the chief of naval operations and the chief of naval personnel. 

"From there, it turned into a conversation about why we have the policy the way we have it. Did it make sense in today's society?" he recalled in an early May phone interview.  "Does a having a tattoo, or a sleeve or other tattoos, are they any less capable of being a sailor?"

They decided that it didn't.

Stevens said the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive to the change, which made the Navy's tattoo policy the most lenient of any military service. Those rules took effect in late April.

Now that the dust is settling on the new rules, here's what you need to know:

According to Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Mike Stevens, few changes in Navy policy have resonated so clearly with sailors as the Navy's decision to relax their policies on tattoo's.

In the days following the Navy’s announcement of the liberal shift in the size and locations on the body where tattoos are allowed, Stevens’ Facebook page exploded when posted the changes publicly.
"That post absolutely dominated, in numbers of people who read that post, more than anything we’e done over the past four years," he told Navy Times May 1. 

"The last time I looked at it, there were over 3.5 million who were reached by that post. — over a million people viewed it  — and over 1,000 commented and I can't remember how many shares there were."

In Navy terms, he said the decision "went viral."

The reaction, he said was overwhelmingly positive and came from sailors, regardless of whether they had tattoos or not.

Interestingly enough, though, it wasn't something the Navy's leadership was getting bombarded with by sailors in the fleet. Instead, Stevens said, it was a realization that grew over time in to a discussion at the highest levels of the Navy.

And in the end, he said, what seems to have resonated with sailors is that the decision makes sense on many levels.

"I wouldn't say I was hearing about it a lot  — it wasn't an overwhelming ground swell," he said.

"It's just that enough people brought it up on enough occasions that over time it just made you think."

Stevens brought it up with the Navy's leadership, specifically Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson and Vice Adm. Bill Moran, the chief of naval personnel.

"The three of us talk quite a bit — it came up in one of our conversations," he said. "From there, it turned into a conversation about why we have the policy the way we have it — did it make sense in today's society — does a having a tattoo, or a sleeve or other tattoos, are they any less capable of being a sailor?"

The more the discussion expanded throughout the Navy's leadership, the greater acceptance and in the end, the Navy felt it was in their best interests — as well as that of their sailors to rework the policy.

New rules

Stevens said there really wasn't a whole lot of discussion into what in the policy needed to change — all that needed to be done was to look around and see.

"We looked around the fleet and saw what sailors had and, by and large, we built the policy around what most sailors seemed to already have and again, it was based in common sense," he said. "There really wasn't any large study and when we laid out how we felt rules should be changed to, it really did seem to make sense and was accepted by both leadership and the fleet."

The new rules , which took effect April 30, will allow sailors to "have multiple or large tattoos below the elbow or knee, including the wrists and hands," according to NAVADMIN 082/16the naval message announcing the changes.

The Navy’s last major revision was a decade ago in 2006, when they restricted and though the Navy didn’t forbid tattoos visible in any uniform to no larger than it just restricted the size to that of approximately the size of the wearer’s fist. Anything bigger more than that required command OKscrutiny and a waiver allowing the sailor to continue on active-duty. with their existing body art. 

The new policy simplifies this, stating only that "as a result of this change, leg and arm tattoos can be of any size."

This allows Now that size restriction is gone, effectively allowing sleeve tattoos that can be seen even while wearing short sleeved uniforms, like the tan-and-black service uniform.

But the biggest change may be above your collar.

The new rules allow a tattoo on your neck, even behind your ear. The change also opens up the neck — and significantly increased the potential area sailors can now get tattoos — even allowing a visible tattoo in dress uniform "behind the ear." 

As far as neck tattoos, only one is authorized and it can't be larger than an inch in any direction. And if you have a neck tattoo, you can't have a behind the ear one, and vice versa.

The previous 2006 rules were very specific about the neck: defining that the "neck area for purposes of this regulation is any portion visible when wearing a crew neck T-shirt or open collar uniform shirt."

But some things didn't change. Still off limits are the head, face and the scalp. And torso tattoos must not be visible through your dress whites, even if they are notoriously see-through. In addition the previous rule that any torso tattoos can’t be visible through the notoriously see through Navy dress whites, either. 

Can and can'ts

Graphic depicting new tattoo rules for sailors.

Photo Credit: John Harman

The Navy still has a say on what you ink your body with. Something that violates those rules could get you in hot water, even booted out. What hasn’t changed are the Navy’s rules on the content of tattoos, nor has it’s enforcement of those who get tattoos outside the limits of Navy acceptability. 

"The only thing that's really changed is the amount of coverage on their body," Stevens said. "We've opened up the aperture on the amounts and locations, but as far as the rules — what you can and can't have on your body, content-wise — nothing has changed."

When releasing the new rules, he service reiterated these restrictions in the updated policy.

The rules bar "tattoos that are obscene, sexually explicit, and or advocate discrimination based on sex, race, religion, ethnicity, or national origin," the message states. "In addition, tattoos that symbolize affiliation with gangs, supremacist or extremist groups, or advocate illegal drug use are prohibited — waivers will not be given for tattoos with prohibited content."

And neither the Navy — nor Stevens — chooses not to be more specific than that.

And save for a few exceptions, It’s typically up to COs to determine if a sailor’s tattoos and their subject matter meet the Navy’s standards. 

"What I'll tell you is that tattoos are a form of art and art is a form of communication and just like we speak verbally, a tattoo speaks as well," he said.

"You can't possibly draw up a list of everything that's appropriate or not, because it's just not possible," he added.

Of course, these deliberately vague rules also mean commanding officers must wade into complicated cultural arguments. Is the Confederate flag a symbol that promotes intolerance? Is a topless mermaid sexist?

One Navy officer recently said the tattoo rules have a lot of gray areas.

"As leaders we should also not underestimate the challenge involved with this and should give plenty of forethought on how to handle the situation," wrote Cmdr. Daniel Kenda in a letter to Navy Times after the rules came out. "Is that hula girl on his forearm sexist?  Or just a nod to tradition and service in Hawaii, which my uncle, a decased World War II Pacific Theater sailor, had? Is that shamrock tattoo because she is Irish? Or is she a white supremacist, since that tattoo has been used to signify both?"

Stevens advises sailors and leaders to have a broad context in following tattoo rules.

"Though you can’t write down everything that is or isn’t appropriate — you always know when you see or hear things that are inappropriate you know it," he said. "If you have to wonder if the content is appropriate or not, chances are it’s not appropriate, so why take that risk?

"I'd simply say, 'If in doubt — don't.'"


In the setting of tattoo policy, officials also outline the consequences for sailors who get inappropriate tattoos and the Navy’s leadership trusts individual commanders to enforce the rules and make good decisions about tattoos based on the guidelines provided.

"Let's face it, it's all about trust but also accountability," MCPON said. "If a sailor were to get a tattoo that's inappropriate, they would know exactly what they are doing and therefore they would know they would have to deal with the consequences.

"I'm confident our will do the right thing and are doing the right thing — because that's what we've seen."

If caught with body art that doesn’t measure up to the Navy’s standards in location and content, sailors have two options: Get them removed or modified. must either get those tattoos removed or modified to meet standard.

Here, too, Stevens says that as far as he's seen or heard, sailors stay within the rules.

"I've not heard or known of a sailor who has been kicked out of the Navy for an inappropriate tattoo, nor has anyone brought such a case to my attention," he said. "It may have very well happened, it's just that I am not aware of it and this leads me to believe that this isn't a systemic problem."

Special duty

Navy officials say that The new rules will make it easier for more sailors to qualify for duty as recruiters and Recruit Division Commanders, tough jobs that can help sailors move up the ranks faster. both of which are seen fleet-wide as tough jobs, but ones that are also extremely career enhancing.

Previously, sailors with tattoos that were visible in any uniform were required to have their body art evaluated again by either Recruit Training Command or Navy Recruiting Command. Though approval was possible, even for sailors with tattoos, many avoided the scrutiny altogether by simply not applying for the job.  

"The changes provides more flexibility to detail our best sailors to assignments such as Recruit Training Command," said Sharon Anderson, spokeswoman for the chief of naval personnel.   "Now, outstanding Sailors with neck tattoos meeting guidelines and sleeve tattoos are eligible for Recruit Training Command duty to fill these critical positions."

Another way sailors could still be impacted is if they apply for a commissioning program such as the Naval Academy or Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps, which is also a commissioning pipeline for those hoping to become Marine officers. The Marine Corps has its own, more restrictive tattoo policy.

"There are differences in the requirements for USNA and ROTC programs," Anderson said. "For the tattoo policy, USNA is retaining their existing policy with the exception of those fleet sailors who might be accepted to the Naval Academy or the Naval Academy Preparatory School. ROTC will follow [the new] overall Navy tattoo guidance."

Officer Candidate School, too, will also follow the new Navy skin art rules, but officials say sailors seeking who ultimately wish to seek a commission might want to think twice about too many tattoos until they're an officerhey get their commissions

"Sailors who might be considering the Naval Academy or ROTC should understand that they may be limiting their future options by applying too much ink to exposed parts of their body," Anderson said. "If they are 100 percent staying Navy they are likely OK — if there is any thought to Marine option, possibly transferring to another service upon commission or don't really know yet, then they may want to maintain a more conservative appearance in uniform and limit visible tattoos."

Common Sense

Navy leaders hope that less restrictive tattoo rules will keep more sailors in. Tattoos are especially popular with the Millennial generation, from which the Navy is currently recruiting.

Photo Credit: Courtesy

Stevens and other Navy leaders hope theat moves will keep the most talented sailors serving. In the end, why the Navy did it is clear, it’s a retention issue as the Navy seeks to keep it’s best talent in the fleet. 

It’s also something that could impact the Navy’s future and  — Changing tattoo rules removes artificial restrictions on prospective new sailors in an era when less than a quarter of the age-eligible population meets the Navy’s physical, mental and moral standards to even sign up.

"When you are competing for talent, you have to take a look at things like this, and we made the decision that we need to have a policy that's a little more refelective of the society we're in," Stevens said. "It allows us to be competitive in this very difficult recruiting pool we're trying to attract our next generation of sailors from."

Stevens said that he believes as much as 40 percent in 10 of the 18 to 25-year-olds the Navy recruits from have tattoos — before they even join. that he did a lot of informal research into tattoos and what he found opened his eyes to a new reality in body art in society as a whole. 

"It wasn't scientific research, but just out there on the web and the statistics were pretty significant," he said. The numbers of who has tattoos, especially in the primary category we recruit from, the 18 to 25 year category was over 40 percent already have a tattoo before they even join the Navy."

MCPON’s research is based on research by the Pew Research Center's 2010 report,  and published in 2010 in in "Millennials: Confident. Connected. Open to change." — A portrait of generation next."

Millennials are those born between 1981 and 1996, who are known for using body art and technology to express themselves. and the report noted that they find unique ways to express themselves and said two main areas are through technology and body art. 

"Tattoos have become something of a trademark for Millennials — nearly 4 in 10 — 38 percent — have at least one," the report said. Moreover, one tattoo isn’t enough for many Millennials. While 31 percent of tattooed Millennials have just one tattoo, half have two to five tattoos. And fully 18 percent have six or more."

In addition, those in the next largest segment of the recruiting population, the so-called Generation X born between 1965 and 1980, are not far behind, with 32 percent saying they have at least one tattoo, the study said.

The service Navy officials, facesd with a shrinking number of eligible recruits to attract the next generation of sailors from and facing the ooming uncertainty that comes with an improving economy. which in the past has hurt military recruiting, saw no choice but to make a change. 

Though many saw the move as a bold one, Stevens says there really was no choice. 

"When you start putting additional limiting factors on these people, that really have no bearing on their ability to perform in the job or to get a security clearance, that really doesn't make much sense," he said. "We just decided that it was in the best interests of our Navy and the nation to revisit the policy and make it a little bit more reflective of society."

Mark D. Faram is a former reporter for Navy Times. He was a senior writer covering personnel, cultural and historical issues. A nine-year active duty Navy veteran, Faram served from 1978 to 1987 as a Navy Diver and photographer.

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