Soldiers can now sport more tattoos on more body parts after the Army decided to loosen its rules on body ink.
Pentagon officials say the move was made to help beef up sagging recruiting numbers in what Gen. James C. McConville, the Army chief of staff has called a “war for talent.”
The updated directive, signed this week by Secretary of the Army Christine E. Wormuth, allows recruits and active-duty soldiers to have tattoos on their hands, the back of their ears, and the back of their necks.
“Changes to the Army tattoo policy allow individuals who meet all other qualifications for appointment or enlistment the opportunity to serve,” the memorandum states. “They also support the Army’s people strategy, our number one priority, by offering soldiers options … that take into account professional appearance and good order and discipline.”
In the past, recruits with body art in those areas had to file waiver exceptions that sometimes took weeks to process before they were allowed to begin military training. From January through May 2022, Army recruiters filed more than 650 waivers for active duty and reserve recruits, Pentagon officials said.
“This directive makes sense for currently serving soldiers and allows a greater number of talented individuals the opportunity to serve now,” said Maj. Gen. Douglas Stitt, the Army’s director of military personnel management, in a statement.
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A 2019 survey by the polling firm Ipsos found that 30% of all Americans report having at least one tattoo, up from 21% from a similar survey in 2012. In the population most likely targeted by an Army recruiter, the same 2019 poll found that 40% of American under the age of 35 — 2 in 5 — had at least one tattoo.
Sgt. Maj. Ashleigh Sykes, with the Army’s uniform policy department, said people get tattoos for a variety of reasons.
“Some see it as art, some see it as individuality, and some may even have cultural tattoos,” said Sgt. Major Sykes, who has tattoos herself. “Tattoos are more [accepted] now. It’s a change in society.”
The Army hasn’t tried to hide the fact that slack recruiting numbers helped to drive the new tattoo policy. In a tight private sector job market, military recruiting overall is facing its biggest challenge in years, and the Army, the nation’s biggest military service, has been particularly hard-hit. The Army‘s numbers will fall by 12,000 this year because it can’t find enough volunteers to fill the ranks.
“This is the most challenging recruiting market we’ve seen probably in the last 20 years,” Lin St. Clair, the Defense Department’s assistant deputy for accessions, manpower and reserve affairs told a briefing for reporters Thursday. Mr. St. Clair said military officials are reviewing whether a number of other medical and health requirements can be modified to allow more candidates can qualify for service.
The Army Recruiting Command and the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command both recommended the tattoo policy change to senior leaders.
“Some [recruits] may change their mind or go to a different service,” Sgt. Major Sykes said. Or “they just didn’t want to wait anymore.”
It’s not open season for military body ink: The Army will continue to prohibit tattoos on a soldier’s face. Just one two-inch tattoo is allowed on the back of the neck, as well as just one one-inch tattoo behind each ear — that does not extend past the earlobe. Troops may not cover up tattoos with bandages to comply with the regulation, officials said.
Soldiers with tattoos that don’t meet the requirements will have 15 days to decide whether they will have the body art removed or altered. Those who don’t comply could be forced to leave military service, officials said.
Not everyone thinks the move will do much to meet the service’s recruiting challenges.
“This is going to win over, like, eight people. This isn’t changing anyone’s minds,” a user on the Army Reddit page wrote Thursday.
The Army last eased its tattoo policy in 2015 after listening to feedback from troops and senior enlisted leaders. Soldiers were no longer limited to a particular size or number of tattoos on their arms and legs, providing the subject matter of the tattoos was not extremist, indecent, sexist or racist.