Want Ink? Here’s what you need to know

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. James Bolinger
  • 71st Flying Training Wing Public Affairs
I have six tattoos. The one on my left forearm is visible in uniform when my sleeves are up. And my sleeves are always up.

On a regular basis, senior NCOs and officers will question whether my forearm tattoo fits within the guidelines laid out in Air Force Instruction 36-2903, "Dress and Personal Appearance of Air Force Personnel."

According to many chiefs and first sergeants who have investigated both the size and content of this tattoo as it relates to the regulation, I meet the standard, although it may be approaching the border line.

"The reason leaders often question the legitimacy of tattoos visible while in uniform is that people don't ask, 'what is the legal interpretation of the regulation,'" said Master Sgt. Scott Swain, the 71st Operations Group first sergeant.

Many folks don't know the policy, be it leaders or Airmen who want a tattoo, said Sergeant Swain, who graduated the First Sergeant's Academy in November 2010. So, they go look it up in the AFI and if they have a question, they don't ask it, he said.

The current tattoo regulation dates back to March 1998, and despite the fact that the rules are more than 12 years old there is still confusion on how the AFI should be interpreted.

I got the tattoo in question in 2009 while stationed at Fort George G. Meade, Md., as a technical school instructor. Before the artist put the needles under my skin, I walked into the office of an Air Force first sergeant and asked him to help me decipher the regulation so I could continue to wear my sleeves up.

According to Sergeant Swain, individuals who take responsibility and ask before getting a tattoo obviously won't run into trouble. "Recently I had a young man walk (into my office) and say, 'I want to get a tattoo,'" he said. "I asked him to show me what he had in mind, we checked it against the regulation and he was on his way."

However, not all of us think before we act and sometimes end up inked on impulse. I would know about that too; as an airman 1st class I got one on my right arm that peeks out just below the rolled up sleeve of my airman battle uniform.

This begs the questions, "what does the regulation say?" and "how can it be deciphered?"

Starting with the obvious: it can't be offensive. It can't contain any racial slurs, gang symbols, nudity, sexism, etc. Most of us know this list well. If you wouldn't talk about it in polite conversation with your grandmother, you probably shouldn't have it tattooed where the world can see it.

The ink shouldn't be visible above your collar bone. Those little stars that some people get inked behind their ears are a no go.

Visibility doesn't always mean it's on your arm or leg. Tattoos that are visible through your uniform also must be covered.

The last part of the regulation, the part that often confuses people, is the "25 percent or 1/4" rule.

Visible tattoos can't cover more than 25 percent of the skin of an exposed body part, said Sergeant Swain. Mostly, body parts for this regulation are defined as joint to joint, such as wrist to elbow or knee to ankle.

Where Airmen get themselves into trouble is the non-joint areas which are above the elbow and above the knee. There the exposed skin is much less than what would be represented on a joint-to-joint body part. Visible ink below a sleeve or physical training shorts can't cover more than 25 percent of the skin between the end of garment and the joint.

So what does one do about rogue tattoos that violate Air Force regulations?

Sergeant Swain offers three options:

Cover it up. If it's above the collar bone, use a bandage or style your hair so it can't be seen. Keep your sleeves down in ABUs, wear long sleeve blues and if the ink is on your leg, wear pants while in PT gear.

Get it removed. Tattoos are removed at the expense of the Airman who has the ink. Although, depending on circumstances, commanders may seek Air Force medical support for voluntary tattoo removal.

Involuntary separation. Airmen who fail to cover or remove their out-of-regulations ink may be subject to disciplinary action or asked to leave the Air Force.

So there it is. While the Air Force doesn't say, "Airman, don't get that tattoo," it does say to think before you act and maintain a professional image in and out of uniform.