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."
"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.
"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.
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 policy simplifies this, stating only that "as a result of this change, leg and arm tattoos can be of any size."
But the biggest change may be above your collar.
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.
Can and can'ts
Graphic depicting new tattoo rules for sailors.
Photo Credit: John Harman
"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."
"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.
"I'd simply say, 'If in doubt — don't.'"
"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."
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."
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."
"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."
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
"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."
"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."
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.
"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.