USAF Okays Bigger Tattoos—Will it Work?

Tattoo artist John Spring worked this USAF-centric (and policy-compliant) tattoo in 2014 for SSgt. Seth Norman, an air traffic control watch supervisor with the 28th Operations Support Squadron at Ellsworth AFB, S.D. Photo courtesy of John Spring.

Gideon Grudo

Since it went live Feb. 1, it’s too early to tell if USAF’s new tattoo policy, which loosens restrictions on how inked potential airmen can be, has been useful.

The service has no system in place to collect that information moving forward, though it will seek anecdotal data on the impact or success of the new policy, USAF Recruiting Service spokeswoman 1st Lt. Erin Ranaweera told Air Force Magazine.

When the policy went active, USAF waived its previous 25-percent rule, which denied entry to people with any part of their bodies covered by more than a quarter in ink. The new rule leaves in place prohibitions on “head, neck, face, tongue, lips, and scalp” tattoos (and brands and body markings, according to the official language).

Hand tattoos are allowed but limited to “one single-band ring tattoo, on one finger, on one hand.”

“The Air Force found that the 25-percent rule was the primary disqualifier” for potential airmen and threw down the new policy in order to “address this, opening a wider door for talent to join and serve while also recognizing the growing number of Airmen who would benefit from this change,” USAF spokesman Maj. Bryan Lewis wrote in an email to Air Force Magazine.

The tightening of the hand tattoo rule, minimizing it to just the one band, however, could narrow the door for talent. It will disqualify those who would’ve been qualified under the 25-percent rule. Lewis explained this change “ensures the ability to present a more formal military image when required at certain events and/or with dress uniforms.” Current airmen whose hand ink violates this requirement, though, will be “grandfathered in,” he wrote.

SSgt. Seth Norman, an air traffic control watch supervisor with the 28th Operations Support Squadron at Ellsworth AFB, S.D., explained his USAF-centric tattoo to Air Force Magazine (you can see it above). He said the planes in his tattoo represent himself and his two sons, Killian and Avery. To Norman, the tattoo means he should be the best person he can be “as a father, a husband, a friend, and an airman,” he said.

When he heard about the new policy, Norman “rejoiced,” he said. He has a full sleeve tattoo on his left arm—done by tattoo artist John Spring, who also worked Norman’s chest piece—of a lighthouse with a banner reading “July 18th, 1988,” the birthday he shares with his wife.

“Now I’m not restricted in my uniform wear. I’m glad the Air Force has realized that society has changed and that having tatto?os doesn’t make you a degenerate, for lack of a better term,” Norman told Air Force Magazine. “I’m certain they were missing out on some potentially good airmen because of a minor choice they made.”

The 25-percent rule goes back to 1998, when USAF came up with its policy for tattoos, brands, and body markings.

It prohibited excessive instances of tattoos, defining excessive as covering 25-percent of an exposed body part. The idea was to “mitigate associated health risks” and provide a guideline for “proper, professional military appearance while in uniform,” according to Lewis. Since the policy was implemented, airmen have had to completely cover pre-existing, excessive tattoos using uniform items, like long-sleeved shirts, blouses, pants, slacks, or dark hosiery. Or they could get rid of or modify the tattoo so it wouldn’t violate the 25-percent rule anymore.

In 2010, a panel of generals and colonels met in San Antonio, Texas, and reviewed the policy. Though it remained “much the same,” Lewis wrote Air Force Magazine, the meeting did result in a policy rewrite. Commanders were given a tool to measure the excessiveness of a tattoo (you can see the tool on pages 23-24 of that new policy). A form complemented the tool to “document when an individual’s excessive tattoo was waived” and that individual was allowed to just cover it up. The form and photos of the tattoo would get filed until the inked airman left USAF.

Information gathered from field recruiters showed nearly half of contacts, applicants, and recruits had tattoos. The data identified the 25-percent rule as the No. 1 disqualifier of these potential airmen.

In fact, from September to November of last year, an average of 49 percent of contacts, applicants, and recruits were tatted. Nineteen percent had tattoos requiring review or which altogether disqualified them. And of those requiring review, less than one percent submitted the paperwork to get one, said Lewis.

As Air Force Magazine reported in early January, in addition to the tattoo changes, the Air Force also has updated medical accession standards to reflect higher requests for waivers for eczema, asthma, and ADHD. The changes streamline and loosen the waiver requirements for these conditions, including new tests for the history of asthma, loosened standards for ADHD, and more waivers for those with a “mild” form of eczema.

In addition, the Air Force changed regulations governing pre-accession marijuana use. The policy removes the service-prescribed numerical limitations on prior use of marijuana, while a medical diagnosis of substance-related disorders or addiction remains medically disqualifying.