Inked: Marines Loosen Their Tattoo Policy

by Liz Holland

For the first time in 15 years, Marines can have tattoo sleeves. 

A 2007 policy banned Marines from tattoo sleeves. The decision took effect because the Sergeants Major Symposium in 2006 found that Marines at that time had “excessive tattoos.”

This policy relaxed a bit in 2016. That year, enlisted Marines still faced a ban against sleeves. However, they could have an unlimited number of tattoos. The only stipulation was that they were not sleeves. Additionally, officers faced a limit of 4 visible tattoos in their PT uniform. 

The biggest change coming with the new 2022 policy is that it gets rid of the rank distinction. This means the policy now covers all service members. The only tattoo restrictions Marines now face are no tattoos on their faces, heads, necks, or hands. The exception for hand tattoos is if Marines have one ring-like tattoo. Since there is no ban on elbow and knee tattoos anymore, sleeves are fair game. The changes come in hopes of recruiting more service members. 

The new policy also states that chest tattoos must remain below the collarbone. Additionally, back tattoos must remain below the seventh cervical vertebrae. The policy states such tattoos must be concealed by “a properly fitting crewneck T-shirt with no portion of the tattoo showing.”

Despite the changes, tattoos may still pose challenges for service members. A Marine Corps spokesperson, Capt. Ryan Bruce told Marine Corps Times, “Sleeve tattoos will not automatically disqualify Marines from being assigned to the Marine Corps Embassy Security Group (MCESG). However, the MCESG will continue to screen current and contemplated tattoos for all applicants and Marines currently serving as Marine Security Guards.”

Bruce continues, “This screening process will determine if a Marine’s tattoos are suitable for worldwide deployment to include regions that may have cultural sensitivities to different types of tattoos. MCESG will continue to restrict service for those with tattoos that host nation or interagency partners may find offensive or inconsistent with our diplomatic mission.”

While the new tattoo policy loosens restriction on size and placement of ink for Marines, tattoo content restrictions are more specific than before. Marine Corps tattoo policy bans tattoos that “are drug-related, gang-related, extremist, obscene or indecent, sexist, or racist.”

Policy Loosens Restrictions, But Tightens its Language

The 2016 policy used the same language. However, the way the policy defines extremism has changed. The previous tattoo policy defined extremist philosophies as “those which advocate racial, gender, or ethnic hatred or intolerance; advocate, create, or engage in illegal discrimination based on race, color, gender, ethnicity, religion, or national origin; or advocate violence or other unlawful means of depriving individual rights under the U.S. Constitution and federal or state law.” The updated definition also includes discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation. 

The new policy also bans tattoos that, “advocate, engage in, or support terrorism; advocate, engage in, or support the forceful, violent, unconstitutional, or otherwise unlawful overthrow of the government of the United States, any state, commonwealth, district, or territory of the United States; or advocates, engages in, or encourages military personnel or DoD or US Coast Guard civilian employees to violate laws or disobey lawful orders or regulation for the purpose of disrupting military activities.”