Photo Information

Sgt. Lucien Lewis, a career retention specialist with Headquarters and Service Battalion, Headquarters Marine Corps, poses to show the tattoos on his arms. More than half of Lewis’s tattoos are inspired by his fascination with the Japanese culture, he said. As a career retention specialist, Lewis provides guidance to Marines about future job prospects and how tattoos may hamper those opportunities.

Photo by Lance Cpl. Benjamin Harris

Corps cracks down on excessive tattoos

23 Feb 2010 | Cpl. Priscilla Sneden

Maintaining high standards of military appearance is a pillar in the Corps’ history that has distinguished Marines for more than two centuries. Today, as the tattoo trend continues, the Corps still strongly supports the notion that excessive tattoos detract from the professional appearance expected of a Marine.

Recent guidance issued by the commandant is not intended to discourage Marines from decorating their bodies. However, it informs Marines how to stay in compliance while ensuring that no tattoos are of a nature that would bring discredit upon the Marine Corps. 

“We have realized that we needed to provide more amplifying guidance to clear up questions our Marines have about the existing policy to allow them more opportunities within the Corps and once they leave the service,” Sgt. Maj. Carlton W. Kent, sergeant major of the Marine Corps said.

The overall intent of the policy is to ensure Marines can remain worldwide assignable, by maintaining the professional demeanor and high standards expected of the Corps.  Additionally, the commandant wants to inform Marines that tattoos can negatively impact their future career goals, especially if that involves law enforcement. 

“Marines are recognized around the world because of our high standards of military bearing and appearance,” Kent said.  “We want Marines to set the example and be assignable to any billet, in any location.”

The policy seeks to balance the personal desires of Marines with their responsibility to set the example and present a sharp military appearance.  

“Tattoos of an excessive nature do not represent our traditional values and are contrary to our professional demeanor and the high standards America has come to expect from us,” said Maj. Shawn D. Haney, public affairs officer, Manpower and Reserve Affairs in Quantico, Va.

Marine Administrative Message 029/10, released Jan. 15, clarifies past and current policies. It prohibits sexist, racist, eccentric, vulgar or otherwise offensive tattoos. Tattoos that express an association with illegal drugs, anti-American content or affiliation to any extremist group or organization are also prohibited.

The policy also prohibits tattoos on the head, neck, hands, fingers and wrists as well as full, half and quarter sleeves visible in the standard physical training uniform.

Individual tattoos visible in the PT uniform will be no larger than the wearer’s hand, and officers will be limited to a maximum of four tattoos visible in the PT uniform.

Marines with grandfathered sleeves have no restrictions for reenlistment or promotion. However, they are no longer eligible for any enlisted-to-officer program, recruiting duty or Marine Security Guard duty.

“Marines need to understand the intent of the policy and the specific guidance that is published so that they can make an informed decision before getting a tattoo,” Kent said.

The tattoo policy is in place to deter Marines from excessive tattooing, which can hinder their future career opportunities in the Corps or as civilians.

“As we adjust our policy on tattoos so are many civilian agencies,” said Kent. “I have met with many former Marines who told me they could not even get a job at a fast food restaurant because of their tattoos.”

Recently, a team at Headquarters Marine Corps conducted research on state police and highway patrol tattoo policies. All 50 state police or patrol departments were contacted about their respective tattoo policies. Overall,  39 states have official written policies covering tattoos and body art or modifications, as well as other personal appearance standards.

Former Marine, John Beekman, is a 16-year-veteran detective in Chandler, Ariz.  He advises service members to consider their future career choices before getting new ink.

“Keep in mind the tattoo itself; the type, size, and [location on your body] - how will it affect you later?” said Beekman.  “When you’re young and motivated you’re not thinking about the future. But, one day you will get out of the Marine Corps and perception is reality. The general public is going to look a person with [excessive] tattoos and make an immediate judgment. “

Beekman attests to the fact that many law enforcement agencies are also pulling in the reins on excessive tattoos.

“Our department policy on tattoos states that if visible while working in an official capacity, all tattoos must be covered,” he said. “This policy became permanent in 2008.”

“As of this date, no applicants have been turned away simply for excessive tattoos. However, if an applicant has visible tattoos that are deemed inappropriate, or those visible tattoos that cannot be covered must be eliminated if the applicant wishes to be hired.”

The Chandler Police Department, along with many departments across the nation agree with the Corps’ tattoo policy standards prohibiting tattoos that are offensive to a person's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

The driving force behind the amplification of the tattoo policy is to ensure that Marines can prosper no matter what career path they choose.  

“The success of our Marines during their career, as well as afterward, is important,” Kent said.

Although many may not agree with the policy, all Marines must adhere to it.

“Tattoos are one of the bonds we have as Marines, [but] setting the standard has always been our job,” said Sgt. Stephen B. Dolo, an anti-tank missileman currently serving as the assistant training chief for Headquarters Battalion, Headquarters Marine Corps, who personally has two tattos within regulations. 

Marines not in compliance with this policy should have their tattoos grandfathered via the appropriate channels within their chain of command by June 1. 

Information concerning individual state police policy can be found here: State Police Policy

Headquarters Marine Corps