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Air Force secretary says tattoo review includes a look at what other services are doing

This story was updated Aug. 5, 2016. 

Sit tight, airmen. The Air Force is updating its uniform and appearance policy, which it does every four years, and tattoos are indeed under review. But whether the service intends to change what’s acceptable ink, and if so, how,  is still being determined, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told Air Force Times on Wednesday.

But as part of the tattoo policy review, James has asked for a detailed comparison of Air Force regulations with the regs of the other services, which are more lenient.  

"Every four years, and we happen to be at that crucial point right now, there is a review of our personal appearance and uniform policy," James said during a roundtable discussion with Air Force Times and Defense News​. She stressed r​Recommendations will be presented to put forth to both ​her and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein by the "late fall timeframe." 

"The tattoo policy will be reviewed as part of that greater look," James said, "and one thing I specifically asked for as part of that review is that we look at what the other services are doing because we’re … in a healthy and friendly competition with our sister services, and we don’t want to lose out on good recruits at least without thinking it through on what the tattoo situation is." 

In April, the Air Force said a working group had formed to discuss an update to the tattoo regulations. "Depending on the working group's findings, we anticipate any policy change proposals to be ready for Air Force leadership consideration in the fall of 2016," Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Brooke Brzozowske said at the time. That same month, the Navy overhauled its tattoo policy, allowing sailors to sport neck tattoos, sleeves and even markings behind their ears, the most lenient policy of any military service.

"I did specifically ask for when [the working group] comes give us recommendations, that whatever they recommend, they also tell us how does this stack up vis-à-vis the other services so that we can make some informed judgments about it," James said. 

James said she isn’t completely familiar with each of the sister services' policies, but she's aware that Army’s policy was one she knew​ "recently relaxed some of their stipulations ... and I would like to learn more about that moving forward." 

Input from soldiers prompted the Army to update its tattoo policy in 2015. Under the new rules, sleeve tattoos, which typically cover the arm from shoulder to wrist, are once again authorized as long as they don't extend past the wrist, Sergeant Major of the Army Dan Dailey told Army Times last April. 

The Air Force hasn't updated its policy on tattoos since 2010, when there was a change to how the chain of command could determine, or even measure, a tattoo to be "excessive." If airmen have excessive tattoos — anything defined as covering 25 percent of an exposed body part or readily visible when wearing any uniform other than PT gear — they need to fill out a form for their commander to document that an excessive tattoo has been waived and the individual has been authorized to cover the tattoo with his or her uniform.

The form remains on an airman's service record until the he or she leaves the Air Force or the tattoo is removed, Brzozowske said.

Other restrictions apply: any visible tattoos or markings above the collarbone, such as the neck, head, face, tongue, lips, and/or scalp, are prohibited. Unauthorized tattoos need to be removed. At the commander's discretion, they could be removed through various sessions in a Defense Department medical treatment facility.

Airmen cannot tattoo themselves with symbols linked to hate groups, Brzozowske said. The Air Force Office of Special Investigations generates a list of what constitutes intolerable markings.

Airmen have been very vocal on welcoming a new policy.

"I would love to have a sleeve, because tattoos are one of my stress relievers, and it lets me show off my personality when I’m outside of uniform," one airman wrote to Air Force Times July 15. "Other branches allow half sleeves, even full sleeves but the Air Force policy prevents us from being ourselves."

"I [want] to join the Air Force, but the only thing holding me back is the quarter-size


​ tattoo behind my ear," one reader, Amanda, said in an email. "Joining the Air Force means so much to me, and I don't want something so small to hold me back."

"I respectfully request that our great Air Force leaders embrace the culture and side with the Army and Navy in regards to adjusting the policy so that we may have tattoos on our arms extending past 25 percent of the exposed body part," one staff sergeant wrote


​on July 27.  "They do not show when we wear official military uniform and we have long-sleeved Air Force blues.

"I hope this fall, we truly see a change in the current policy and that we may all reach our full potential, regardless if we have 26 percent of our skin tattooed or none of it," the staff sergeant said.

Oriana Pawlyk covers deployments, cyber, Guard/Reserve, uniforms, physical training, crime and operations in the Middle East and Europe for Air Force Times. She was the Early Bird Brief editor in 2015. Email her at

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