ProTact by Haartz

Seeking AF Tattoo Policy Expertise

We’ve got an Air Force reader with a problem. He’s a hard charging Airman that has a pretty extensive tattoo collection. He’s being told that if he doesn’t have his ink removed, he’ll be denied reenlistment, have his ALS date cancelled, meal card stamped “no dessert”, etc.

Do any SSD readers have any insight into tattoo waivers for serving Airmen (of any rank)?

50 Responses to “Seeking AF Tattoo Policy Expertise”

  1. Tom says:

    I am not in the AF but as an army guy i can tell you that they have become very strict with tattoos. Our buddy was in the OCS process and he was in phase one and denied because he has a sleeve tattoo. As for waivers go If you have a good record and some people can support your waiver then you should be able to come back in. Also there is a grandfather period with tattoos. Hope this helps.

    SGT , National Guard

  2. Zach says:

    Per AFI 36-2903 he should be either grandfathered or waivered for a reenlistment. Unless his CoC is just being a bag of dicks and wants him out for whatever reason. Coming from a cop unit, we had a lot of ink amongst us, to include SNCOs. Without knowing the specifics I cant say much more than that.


    • Scott says:

      I was a Cop in the 95th (07-10) and the policy was changing but if my memory recalls, you are correct. He would be grandfathered in and would just be required to wear long sleeve while in blues. The issue might arise if he has gotten recent tattoos that violate the policy, i.e.-hand tattoo, neck tattoo, or anything in general that can not be covered.

  3. Doc B says:

    I haven’t any specialized advice to offer, though I empathize, greatly. I’m currently being given a staunch “No” about going to PA school for the Army because I have a partial sleeve….which depicts an angel picking up a fallen buddy. Seemed a decent artistic summary of the combat medicine field of endeavor, to me.

    I personally find it a little trying that we go after these professions as hard as we do, volunteer to give up what we might have to, love them so much we get imagery directly inspired by them made a permanent part of our flesh…and then some deskbound penmonkey, somewhere, gets to tell us that that very love is what precludes us from a higher level of service and responsibility.

    If the artwork your airman displays is not racist or otherwise (actually) offensive toward one group or another, and thus does not bring discredit to his service, then why would the air force give 1cc of urine about it, anyway? Make him unable to roll his cammies up and display the work, if you want. Whatever. But kicking out a solid performer over nothing more than some ink?


    What I would suggest, if it is even plausible, is this: Research what is and what ain’t allowed. If it is what an AF recruiter told me about the arms, just have a dermatologist write a letter saying that s/he measured it volumetrically and the sleeve work takes up less room than the regulation cries about.

  4. SSD says:

    I’m hearing back channel that the AF tattoo issues aren’t with the unit-level leadership but rather with the Shoe Clerk crowd who are institutional types and far removed from any operational missions the Air Force fulfills. These are include but are not limited to, PME staffs and Recruiting Command personnel.

    • Chuck says:

      As a Cop CC I could careless what my Airmen have as long as they know that sometimes they are going to need to wear a long sleeve and it’s not allowed on there freakin head, neck, etc. I encountered a situation where I had a GREAT NCO that had won the Wing level NCO of the Year and needed to do a photo in SS Blues. He stated he didn’t have a SS due to his tattoos (good on him for knowing the deal) However, he was forced to do a SS picture and in my opinion it cost him winning an award he rightly deserved. Heck my new Ops O has ink on her forearms and again, what do I care because she is squared away, and knows when to wear the long sleeve. Stupid people complicate the whole business.

      • Chuck says:

        Wow sorry for the spelling issues. Typed in a frenzy. I have a Tattoo on my leg and was forced to cover it with an ACE badge during training years ago because the instructor didn’t like it. Met the AFI in everyway, but the guy just didn’t like it, so I had a damn candy cane leg tan line “just because”.

      • SSD says:

        I like your style.

  5. Cap'n Drew says:

    IANAL, but the current edition of AFI 36-2903 paragraph says, “Members who have or receive excessive tattoos/brands/body markings after the date of this publication are required to initiate tattoo/brand removal/alteration (unless authorized to cover).” Per Appendix A7.7, authority to authorize him to cover appears to lie with his unit commander (probably the first O-5 in his chain….) but it’s not clear what the criteria are for authorizing him to cover vs requiring him to remove it.

  6. DanW says:

    Reading through 36-2903 right now. Not sure if another reg would cover this, but as long as the tatoos aren’t racist, gang tatoos, extremist group tatoos, he should be grandfathered in. Tell him to take it up with his JAG.

    • DanW says:

      Correction; looks like he needs to have them removed. Members who have or receive excessive tattoos/brands/body markings after the date of this publication are required to initiate tattoo/brand removal/alteration (unless authorized to cover).

  7. majrod says:

    When I joined the military I did so with the understanding I would have to subordinate myself to a larger organization. I didn’t realize how much at first but I learned over the first several years.

    I didn’t like everything I was told I would have to adhere to. Sometimes I strongly disagreed with policy. I bucked it on occasion accepting the repercussions.

    The importance of tats to some strikes me as misplaced priorities. I know they are different but the logic that supports a lot of these tatoo arguments can be made to tats on one’s face, colorfully tinted or groomed hair or piercings. They just don’t happen to be as “cool”. Maybe tats are more important to some than all the organization’s values. The problem is in a military organization one doesn’t get to pick and choose what values you get to uphold.

    When did SSD get in the business of changing military values or undermining leadership that may or may not agree with higher’s policy? What’s next? How not to piss hot on a urinalysis because pot is becoming legalized?

    Not going to be a popular post or what people “want” to hear. It doesn’t mean I’m any less right.

    • matty says:

      It could and should be argued however that tattoos are part of the militarys identity because they go back so far in our history. (especially naval history) head,hands,neck tattoos sure ban those but if it can be concealed with sleeves it seems asinine especially since it’s not an issue until you’re trying to trim the force.

      • Bill says:

        A heart and “Mom” on a bicep are far cry from what is being done today. There needs to be a class in High School, or Middle School, or Elementary school called ” Decisions you make quickly today can have lasting repercussions the rest of your Life, and it isn’t always about gonnorhea, credit cards and pregnancy.” I also think that some of these 19 year old forget that there is life after the service, too, and that those thousand dollar sleeves frequently don’t fly in the private sector, or you are doomed to year-round long sleeves and a tie, which looks pretty stupid in the pit at Jiffy Lube. Personally, I’m fine with anything that isn’t visible when a short sleeved open collar uniform shirt is worn: anything under that can be full-Yakuza.

        Sorry I miss-spelled “gonorhea,” I’ve never had it.

      • AbnMedOps says:

        A “few” tattoos were perhaps defensible as part of our military identity, such a Globe and Anchor for Marines, or a sailor having an anchor (for serivce in the Atlantic) or whale (for service in the Pacific).

        But the past few year’s incredible profusion of bizarre, macabre, and contextless and taste-free dermal disfigurements can best be attributed to the banal filling the voids created in a value-less society.

        In otherwords, yes, our Western, Judeo-Christian, post-Enlightenment societal construct is indeed collapsing, with no credible intellectual successor on the horizon. This creates a vacuum, which is inexorably filled by the Barbarians, both external and internal Barbarians.

        That a “cop unit”, or a civilian police force, is rife with a form of emblemism, which until very recently was largely restricted to criminals and various cultural rejectionists, does not portend well for the health of the “cop” “profession”, nor for those subject to the authority (or whims) of cops.

        I can’t bear to go into a lengthy discourse on the aesthetic assault and battery which comprises 90% of the tattoos “art” that I am unable to overlook, but permit me a derisive laugh at “tribal” tattoos: If I was not so kind-hearted, I might ask “Hey, white kid! What did you have to get to get accepted into the tribe? Did you kill a crocodile, or marry the Chief’s daughter?”

        Is it 1700 yet? I wanna go home..

        • Mike says:


          I honestly cannot tell if your response was intended to be sarcastic, or if you’re simply ignorant.

          I’m not inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt, so please explain how one equates a non-“Western, Judeo-Christian, post-Enlightenment” society as being purely barbaric? I consider myself quite professional in my work, relatively well spoken, well educated, well-inked and comfortably agnostic. Explain to me, relying only on rational thought and reason, how you could so grossly categorize persons like myself as barbaric?

          We could go into the ridiculous nature of your straw-man arguments, the oddly worded jab at native tribes, or poor grammar, but let’s use big boy rules and just focus on the spirit and intent of your post.


          • AbnMedOps says:

            Relax, Mike, some of my best friends are barbarians. My post was only partially tongue in cheek, though. I do believe, in a grand-historical context, that the particular Western expression of civilization I described is in fact past it’s prime, and out of steam intellectually and philosophically. The collapse has been underway since (1914? pick a date), will continue through many decades, even centuries, and will not happen uniformly, There will even be bright spots along the way. Western thought and the civilization it facilitated is what has created the temporary breathing space for an era of liberty, prosperity, and unprecedented advancement. Your or any other private individuals personal choice to adorn your body with tattoos, piercings, “gauges”, or extreme body modifications is not the issue – I’m sure you are as professional as you say and are a fine guy. Probably better than most. However, as a PHENOMENA, the sudden and incredibly widespread adoption of tattooing in our society, is a highly visible and jarring reminder of the HUGE shifts and faultlines in our culture. The substantive issues are the things that actually underpinned the entire societal construct. For example, the effective collapse of the once dominant Christian religions (I’m NOT pushing religion!) leaves a vacuum which is filled with various “faith” -based quasi-religions, such as Communism early in the 20th Century, and a whole spectrum of other irrationalisms and mass delusions today.

            Returning specifically to the heavily tattoo’ed cop issue, understand that there are huge swathes of the “upstanding citizen” portion of the populace who will almost instinctively recoil from heavy and extreme tattoos. Our earliest and most enduring exposure to this stuff was usually in a context of thugs, criminals, and general low-lifes. Tattoos used to be rare among cops – in large part due to this association.

            I can accept societal change and individual choices, but why a “good guy”, or a whole generation of “good guys”, would choose to effect the look and style of an underclass is beyond me…except to think that, in a culture contemptuous of higher art and thought, the vacuum will be filled with the most aggressively marketed and easily digestible filler.

            But enjoy your tattoos..for now, on your tight youthful skin. I shoulda been a dermatologist.. 🙂 Rant over.

    • Common Sense says:

      What is the actual intent? Beyond the level of “uniformity”, how does it actually disable the person/unit from doing their job?

      Roll your sleeves down, and let the men get on with their work! If it can’t be seen in uniform (during PT, you should be doing PT not staring at someone’s arm), then how does it destroy unit integrity?

      Sure, rules are rules- but WHY does this rule exist? How can it possibly make a unit more effective at their job? There are SO MANY issues with dress and uniformity (why aren’t all vehicles painted the same? how about building colors on a base?)- that this small piece- which can only be observed if you are obsessed with rolled up sleeves- really doesn’t cause any more damage than the others.

      You can argue all day about unit integrity- but really we pick and choose all the time which rules to follow.

      • majrod says:

        As I said “Common Sense” your argument could justify quite the “look” e.g. face tats, colorful hair and a variety of piercings. None of those keep a service member from “doing their job.” While we’re at it why don’t we just get rid of uniforms.

        Those that have a problem with “uniformity” in a “uniformed” service probably don’t get the deeper meaning of the word “service”.

        It’s not about oneself.

        “You can argue all day about unit integrity- but really we pick and choose all the time which rules to follow.”

        IF that’s true that’s probably one if not the reason we have so many issues with values in the military starting with poor leadership and ending with a lack of trust among the rank and file.

        • VCI says:

          I’m assuming the MAJ in your name stands for Major which explains your completely asinine response.
          I spent the last part of my career in a Unit that didn’t wear uniforms and no one had a problem with it. We probably accomplished more “service” in one day then you have your entire career.
          It’s conventional thinking like yours that holds back the US Military and provides the poor leadership you talked about, not the warriors actually fighting the war on the ground, who are not uniform and have tattoos.

        • Common Sense says:

          You jumped WELL past anything that I wrote. I made no mention of face tattoos etc. I was referencing the original thread- which is reference sleeve tattoos on an arm. Piercings CAN be dangerous (get caught and torn, infected, pathway for bacteria etc). Colourful hair? Certainly can cause an issue. It sets individuals apart, can make them identifiable in a tactical setting, or could be easily seen from a distance (even natural gingers always need a hat in the field).

          As far as uniform, define uniform? Should personnel in garrison look as similar as possible? Yes. If you roll down your sleeves- can a tattoo on an arm be seen? NO.
          In the field, should everyone look the same? NO. It does NOT matter. You should be camouflaged, and wearing practical and comfortable uniforms. As long as your nation can be identified (same camouflage pattern, and a flag if necessary), the rest is all BS.

          Picking and choosing rules and regulations exists in EVERY military unit/corporation/community with a layered bureacracy.

          Sit down with a major unit, and find ALL the regulations to which they are subject. National, Base, Unit, Commanders at various levels. You WILL find rules that are not followed, either deliberately- or because somewhere down the line someone didn’t think enough to follow them and everyone just forgot.

          My point is that you are turning something which is dealt with very simply (roll down your sleeves)- and turning it into the issue which will destroy all integrity. In doing so, an individual (who we have been told serves honorably) is being punished and made an example of. There are plenty of existing standards to uphold, without retroactively creating new ones.

    • Mike says:


      I’ll preface that while I am tattooed, all of my ink falls within compliance of the regulations.

      That being said, when I joined the military I entered under a contract and understood to the best of my ability the terms of agreement. One such area I researched ahead of time was the tattoo policy. I ensured that I was in compliance, and then sought out skilled artists to use my skin as their canvas on my own dime and time. Each piece has a deep and significant amount of sentimental value, most of which are tied to family. I’m not sure if you’ve ever been tattooed, but it is not a pleasant experience. I’ve been told that having a tattoo removed is actually a worse experience.

      Just because something is written into law or regulation does not make it “right.” We have all of human history to observe instances of misdirected or harmful laws. As such, I would not consider it right, correct or moral to change the regulations on your servicemen and women after you’ve already allowed them to spend their own time and money to invest in something they greatly value, and to have them remove said investment with their own time and money. I think it’s unfair and immoral to change the rules when the game is already started.


      • majrod says:

        Mike – They didn’t change the rules. Members who have or receive excessive tattoos/brands/body markings after the date of this publication are required to initiate tattoo/brand removal/alteration (unless authorized to cover).

        This didn’t happen last night, month or year…

        and for those in other services that got waivers or the regs weren’t enforced because we were in the middle of a fight, the fight is coming to an end and as we have done after every major military effort a culling occurs. Further, one must realize waivers are not a change to the regulation or permanently granted.

        Since your tats are IAW regs what’s your dog in the hunt?

        • Mike says:


          They changed the rules in 2011 with the publication of the new regulations. I joined after 2006, and fell under these guidelines:

          “Air Force members with tattoos not meeting an acceptable military image should be required to (a) maintain complete
          coverage of the tattoos using current uniform items (e.g. long-sleeved shirt/blouse, pants/slacks, dark hosiery, PT running suit, etc.) or (b) remove tattoo(s). ”

          This didn’t require a waiver, you had the option to simply cover the limb. The new regulations, which are only three years old, do not grandfather in anyone who had exposed tattoos under the 2006 regulations.

          My dog is this; what happens when they change the rules again, and all of a sudden I find myself out of regs? Leaning out the force needs to be a done on merit basis, not based purely on aesthetics.


    • tdg says:

      ugggh, you guys are everywhere!

  8. DAN III says:

    DoD is more concerned about tattoos than Army troops and Marines knowing their battlesight zero. The US military has become a haven for political correctness rather than the killing machine it should be. It’s no longer about winning armed conflict.

    Those of you who voted for obama should be pleased with the destruction the usurper is sowing within our military and our country.

    • SSD says:

      He’s responsible for the tattoo policy? Lack of a coherent foreign-policy? Sure. Poor national defense strategy? Absolutely. But Pres. Obama has nothing to do with the current military tattoo policy. You can blame that on a bunch of old guys who are leftovers from the Cold War and are now in a position to make policy.

    • Riceball says:

      As Majrod put it earlier, we’re coming to an end of over a decade of war and are, once again, shrinking the military, this means that regs that weren’t enforced much (or at all) before are now being enforced, new regs are being put into place, and even tiny screw ups can cost a career. Is this fair, no, but is it understandable, yes; the military is being forced to shrink and how els are you going to do it in a timely manner without finding creative ways of shedding personnel? Basically, they’re making it so that only those with the most desire and/or ability to keep their noses clean will stay in, they want people to go F that I’m keeping my tats and leave.

  9. bloke_from_ohio says:

    I love tatoo threads on SSD,, and other similar websites. They always degrade into one generation effectively screaming “darn kids with their ink! They look like a pile of crap!” and the next one screaming “My artwork has great personal meaning! It doesn’t make me suck at being a soldier!”

    These types of threads are almost as much fun as cammo or the old 9mm vs .45 debate!

  10. Jacques says:

    If he’s serious, recommend he talks with a lawyer. Consult is usually free and a good opportunity to learn if he has a case. I would probably get outside the ECR of the (often, not always) piss-poor lawyers that seem to grow around the fenceline of all military bases and seek out a pro in a nearby city. A hardcore Harvard-qual’d lesbian JD from the city might roll up the sleeves of her turtleneck, tighten the laces on her comfortable shoes and take the case for free for a shot to go mano a mano with an air force General. Or he can go full-on plaid to the ACLU but that is gonna be BLU-82 danger close…no going back after you call that one in.

  11. Former 13A says:

    As a point of conversation, how does “uniformity,” one of the ideals that defines a well disciplined military force, play into this? Although I agree that this is an ad hoc method of trimming the force, one could argue this is a correction to a problem that should never have been allowed to exist in the first place.

    To be clear, I have no doubt that a well-inked, hard-charging, competent, Soldier is a great asset to this country. Many of the best Soldiers I have had the honor of serving with were covered with some of the worst tattoos I’ve ever seen (my opinion). I would still take them over the habitual profile guy or the guy who can’t pass a PT test after 5 years.

  12. JG says:

    I guess I don’t get the need to make one’s body a mobile billboard. An EGL for a Marine. Ok. A name of a unit you served with? Maybe. A black band across your forearm or a bunch of stars in varying sizes or a bunch of random pictures from your ankles to your neck? No. And for those that say they are a professional warrior in a profession of arms…does a tattoo make you shoot better, run faster, or charge into a firefight with more vigor? If you body is such a temple of the martial arts, why would you spray graffiti on the outside of the walls? Pirates were pretty badass and wore tattoos and earrings. Do you feel the military ought to let you wear a big hoop earring or gauges in your ears? Vikings were awesome warriors and had hair and braids. Maybe a couple of golden braids streaming down from under your ACH would focus your warrior spirit. The military is not a democracy or a social experiment. Follow the rules or seek other employment. No one is forcing you to join anymore and they sure as hell aren’t making you stay to retirement. Fufill your oath, get out and then get your body ink’d up.

    • Jose G says:

      JG, sure the military is not a social experiment, but they are making it one. What they are looking for is a way to down size the ranks, and they are looking for any excuse that can expedite it. If they really cared or gave a damn, back when they were letting anyone off the street join, then maybe that should have been a qualifier for turning them away, but they didn’t because they needed the bodies.. So now, here’s one example of a Airman, that is doing the right thing and serving his country, forcibly being asked to get rid of the tattoos (Which were okay a few months,years ago) or get forced out. We don’t know what the tattoo looks like, where it’s located, and if could be covered up. Matter of fact, we don’t even know if it’s something that is not PC, which seems to be how it works these days, if it’s not PC, it’s a NO GO. Keep in mind some of the folks that are in and have been deployed, might have tattoos to remember fallen brothers and sisters and they are using the tattoos as a means to remember them. So more than likely it’s some POGUE or REMF that can’t stand that this airman has the cojones to man the walls instead of sitting behind a desk.

    • cj says:

      i demand viking beards. now.

  13. Bulletdrop says:

    AFI 36-2903 spells out the coverage allowed and about offensive natured tattos. Also, he does not need to come to the JAG office he needs to go to the Area Defense Counsel. If he is facing any adverse actio to his career ie.. denial of reenlistment or denied ALS they are the organization for him. But remember readers before you get to fired up. There are three sides to the story (his, theres, and the truth).

    • Bulletdrop says:

      AFI 36-2903 spells out the coverage allowed and about offensive natured tattoos. Also, he does not need to come to the JAG office he needs to go to the Area Defense Counsel (ADC). If he is facing any adverse actions to his career ie.. denial of reenlistment or denied ALS, they are the organization for him. But remember readers before you get to fired up…. There are three sides to the story (his, theres, and the truth).

  14. Buckaroomedic says:

    Look, the USAF is doing everything it can to thin the ranks right now. Finally enforcing the tattoo policy is jus another option in the bag-o-tricks.

    I might add that it’s about time too.

    Now, if only the USAF would enforce it’s own height and weight standards and tell the kids how to wear their patrol caps properly . . . .

    • tomatokilla says:

      Good shot. I believe all the services are doing what they can to weed the numbers. It’s a shame that regardless of ink-work, there are a lot of good folks out there along with some folks that are hulks that can’t get within Marine Corps regs and never have because their neck is too small or something equally as trivial. On the other hand I have delt with more than one female Navy officer that couldn’t do anything to save themselves in an emergency if they had to. Apples and organges, it’s just a shame sometimes.

  15. Joe momma says:

    In re: The whole thinning the ranks thing; didn’t the just raise the enlistment age? Waft the reasoning behind that then?
    “We don’t want 39 year old E-7’s with years of experience and training but has tattoos, we want new fresh 39 year olds!” ?

  16. The Hump says:

    After a war every branch of the military is recaptured by the clip board people. They don’t have much to do except suck up to the cube rats above them. I doubt that guys commander would tell a visiting SealTeam 6 guy that he has too many tats or tell a AF CCT to shorten his sideburns. Unless this guy is in SOCOM, and even if he was SF he’d still be screwed, he is just screwed.

    If he wants to stay in he will have to get some of his tats lasered off. Bringing in a lawyer to file a case will just get make his slope even more slippery. Remember at the end of the day you are just government property. If they want to dress you in a clown suit and give you a squirt gun to fight people wearing pajamas and flip flops they can.