Updated: April 29, 2016
If there was one branch of service that was synonymous with tattoos, I think it would be the Navy. The days of a Sailor pulling into some exotic far east port and having a few drinks, and then heading down to the local tattoo artist have been seriously hampered by the latest instructions. A Sailor can still get a tattoo, but he or she must consider a number of things before picking the location, size, and content. So before you get your next tattoo, keep reading!
The policies of tattooing, branding, and body art extend to those wishing to join the Navy. Below I have quoted a section of the Navy recruiting manual which discusses the topic (there have been various updates, and those are defined at the bottom of the article).
Four criteria will be used to determine whether tattoos/body art/brands are permitted for Navy personnel: content, location, size and cosmetic. (During the screening process, tattoos must be seen either in person or by sighting a photograph) The following has been extracted from NAVADMIN 082/16, CNRC N3 Operational Notice #43, and NAVCOMCRUITCOMINST 1130.8J (CHG 8):
Content. Tattoos/body art/brands located anywhere on the body that are prejudicial to good order, discipline, and morale or are of a nature to bring discredit upon the naval service are prohibited. For example, tattoos/body art/brands that are obscene, sexually explicit, and/or advocate discrimination based on sex, race, religion, ethnic, or national origin are prohibited. In addition, tattoos/body art/brands that symbolize affiliation with gangs, supremacist or extremist groups, or advocate illegal drug use are prohibited.
Location. One tattoo will be authorized on the neck and shall not exceed one inch in dimension (height/width). The neck is defined as the area between the collar line of a crew neck T-shirt and the base of the jaw bone. Tattoos meeting these requirements are acceptable behind the ear. No tattoos are permitted on the head, face (to include ear) and scalp.
No tattoos/body art/brands on the head, face, neck or scalp. The neck area for purpose of this policy is any portion visible when wearing a properly fitted crew neck T-shirt. However, the NRD CO may approve an eligibility determination for a tattoo visible above the collar of a crew neck T-shirt, but is not visible while wearing a properly fitting open collar uniform shirt (from any direction). In addition, otherwise permissible tattoos/body art/brands on the torso area of the body shall not be visible through white uniform clothing.
Size. The size restriction for visible tattoos is limited to the area of the neck and behind the ear only. As a result of this change, leg and arm tattoos can be of any size. Tattoo on the neck or behind the ear will not exceed one inch in measurement in any dimension (height/width).
Individual tattoos/body art/brands exposed by wearing a short sleeve uniform shirt shall be no larger in size than the wearer’s hand with fingers extended and joined with the thumb touching the base of the index finger. Tattoos/body art/brands that exceed size criteria are waiverable provided they do not violate the content or location criteria.
Cosmetic Tattoos. Cosmetic tattoos are authorized to correct medical conditions requiring such treatment. For the purpose of this regulation, cosmetic tattooing refers to medical or surgical procedures conducted by licensed, qualified medical personnel.
Mutilation. Intentional mutilation of any part of the body is prohibited. Mutilation is defined as the intentional radical alteration of the body, head, face or skin for the purpose of and or resulting in an abnormal appearance. Examples of mutilation include, but are not limited to a split of forked tongue; foreign objects inserted under the skin to create a design or pattern; enlarged or stretched holes in the ears (other than a normal piercing); intentional scarring on the neck, face or scalp; and intentional burns creating a design or pattern.
Dental Ornamentation. The use of gold, platinum, or other veneers or caps for purposes of dental ornamentation is prohibited. For purposes of this regulation, ornamentation is defined as decorative veneers or caps. Teeth, whether natural, capped, or veneered, will not be ornamented with designs, jewels, initials or other similar ornamentation.
Removal/Alteration of Tattoos/Body Art/Brands
Disqualified applicants who later have any tattoo/body art/brands professionally concealed or altered may request reconsideration for enlistment/commissioning eligibility determination.
Be advised, all applicants are warned not to obtain any new or additional tattoos/body art/brands while awaiting accession and that failure to comply with this warning could result in their discharge. While in the Delayed Entry Program, Future Sailors should not add any tattoos, body art, body piercings, etc. Future Sailors will be screened 30 days, and again 7 days before leaving for boot-camp to ensure no new tattoos, body art, or brands have been added since entering the Delayed Entry Program. Not only is there a chance for infection, but the tattoo, art, or piercing itself may very well disqualify you and lead to your discharge.
UPDATE as of 15 OCT 2009: “Cosmetic tattoos applied in good taste so that colors blend with natural skin tone and enhance natural features are acceptable. Exaggerated or faddish cosmetic styles are not authorized. Permanent lipstick colors shall be conservative and complement the individual.”
UPDATE as of 28 May 2010: “Tattoos on the inner lip that are not visible with an open mouth are acceptable as long as they meet content criteria.”
UPDATE as of October 15, 2012: “Tattoos/body art/brands that exceed the top of a properly fitted crew neck T-shirt may no longer be approved for enlistment.”
UPDATE as of November 5, 2013: “Policy guidance for applicants with tattoos has been updated. The neck area for purpose of this policy is any portion visible when wearing a properly fitted crew neck T-shirt. However, the NRD CO may approve an eligibility determination for a tattoo visible above the collar of a crew neck T-shirt, but is not visible while wearing a properly fitting open collar uniform shirt (from any direction). Additionally, during the screening process, tattoos must be seen either in person or by sighting a photograph.”
UPDATE as of 31 MAR 2016: The Navy, effective 30 April 2016, will be relaxing its tattoo policy. The current policy as lined through in this article remains effective — the new data will take its place.