Tattoos: How much is too much

29 Jun 2006 | Sgt. Robert L. Fisher III

“Tattoos are a military tradition.” While there is no order stating this, many service members will argue this point until the end of their contract. To some, tattoos are a big part of the military lifestyle. Some service members will refrain from getting a tattoo, but many more will get inked at least once before leaving.But where should the Marine Corps draw the line?The Marine Corps has always had a conservative take on tattoos, especially while the Army and the rest of America have become more accepting of the practice. Some Marines have said the Corps should follow society and its statement of ink as art.Tattoos in AmericaThroughout history, tattoos have often borne the mark of ill repute. But as society continually develops and people become freer with their flesh, ink stitched through the skin adorns the biceps, bellies and backs of sinner and saint alike.“We live in the land of the free and the brave -- people are allowed to do whatever they want,” said Staff Sgt. Gordon Vanschoick, Weapons Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment. “But I understand that in the Marine Corps, you have to put on a good face... your decisions always cost you.”A poll taken by Harris Interactive, a market research company, found 16 percent of all adult Americans have at least one tattoo. The poll further found 13 percent of adults age 18 to 24 and 36 percent of adults age 25 to 29 have tattoos. With numbers like this growing each year, it shows America has become more accepting of the tattoo.While most Marines agree with and abide by the Marine Corps’ policies on tattoos, there are some Marines who disagree with the conservative stance and have called for more leniency.“In this country, tattoos are becoming more popular, and they’re being understood as more of an art form or self-expression,” said Lance Cpl. Dan Kaehler, Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment. “It’s become more acceptable to society.”What the Marine Corps saysWith society walking in this liberal direction, the Marine Corps does not appear to share the same thoughts on body art and continues to make the emphasis on professionalism. Despite the number of service members who get tattoos, the Marine Corps is clear in its recruiting policies on what exactly is an acceptable tattoo.“It’s been a long tradition in all the military services,” said Sgt. Maj. John L. Estrada, sergeant major of the Marine Corps, about tattoos during a recent visit to the Combat Center. “We continue to set the pace for all the armed forces. We have to be selective in the tattoos; we have not changed that policy.”Estrada said the only thing that has changed is people’s interpretations of the order.Marine Corps Order 1029.24G, Marine Corp Uniform Regulation, defines how a Marine should look at all times. It covers everything from proper uniform, haircuts and tattoos to what constitutes beach attire. It states a Marine should “present the best possible image at all times and continue to set the example in military presence.”According to the order, tattoos or brands on the neck and head are prohibited. In other areas of the body, tattoos or brands that are prejudicial to good order, discipline and morale or are of a nature to bring discredit upon the Marine Corps are also prohibited.Another order, MCO P1100.72C, Military Personnel Procurement Manual, Volume 2, Enlisted Procurement, further defined unacceptable tattoos. The criteria included tattoos of a sexist nature, such as expressing nudity; or of a racist, eccentric or offensive nature; or with an association with conduct or substance prohibited by the Marine Corps Drug Policy or the Uniform Code of Military Justice; or that depict vulgar or anti-American contempt, anti-social behavior, bring possible discredit upon the Marine Corps or association with any extremist group or organization.What the Marines sayTo some Marines, the idea of discredit or an offensive nature can leave the order open for discussion. What is offensive to some may not be so to others.Lance Cpl. Joe Ramirez, 2/7 Weapons Company, said a Marine’s attitude is more important than what they decide to put on their skin. Ramirez said that as long as Marines can work with one another, treat other right and put on the same uniform, it shouldn’t matter what kind of tattoo they choose to get. Ramirez has an Aztec calendar and smoke inked on his back, which he says represents the heritage of his grandmother who grew up on a reservation.Others disagreed with this style of thought, saying the Marine Corps should clear the mist and muddle around what defines an offensive tattoo.“People have different opinions,” said Lance Cpl. Aaron Cassel, 3/7 Weapons Company. “To some people doesn’t mean anything but where they come from… In the Marine Corps, if it is that big of a deal to where somebody may misconstrue the tattoo as racist, then I think they shouldn’t get it.”Most Marines realize, while tattoos may not be tradition, it is still a big part of being in the military.Lance Cpl. Sebastian Velasquez, 2/7 Weapons Company, doesn’t have any tattoos, and he said he doesn’t want to get any either. Some of his fellow Marines ridiculed him saying tattoos are part of a “military tradition,” but it does not bother him or change his mind about tattoos, but he said he understood the desire to get inked.“I just don’t want to do it. People should get whatever they want wherever they want. It’s your body, your decision.”While Marines may not always have the answer on what is an acceptable tattoo, it is still a topic of many Marines’ conversations. Many of them call for leniency, while others are satisfied with the current orders. “The American people look up to us, we set the pace for a lot of things that go on in society,” said Estrada. “Yes, tattoos are acceptable, but we draw the line on some of it. If you plan on making a career in the Marine Corps, you have to be very cognizant of the type of tattoos you’re going to get. Most likely it’s going to affect your career’s progression.”
Headquarters Marine Corps