Tattooed Soldiers Are Inked for Battle
Body art has been part of warrior culture for centuries
Tattoos have a long tradition in the U.S. military. For a long time, the American armed forces was one of the few institutions where body art was common. Middle-class society regarded tattoos as sign of low class.
But for blue-collar soldiers, sailors and Marines, body art was a source of great pride. Today tattoos are ubiquitous in the military—and increasingly so in mainstream society.
Oddly, military brass are now trying to fight their forces’ rich tattooing tradition. Both the Marine Corps and the Army have tightened body art regulations, essentially banning visible tattoos below the elbow and knee and on the neck.
Any prospective recruit who has these kinds of tattoos is not eligible to join the military.
There’s a grandfather clause for soldiers and Marines who already have “banned” body art. But their commanders must photograph and register the existing tattoos for military records. If at some late date these troops show up with new, visible art not matching their file photos, they could be subject to disciplinary action—possibly as harsh as dishonorable discharge.
Visibly tattooed enlisted service members are also barred from ever seeking an officer’s commission.
This has rattled the troops. But top leaders have shown little sympathy. “The Army is a professional organization,” Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond Chandler told Army Times last year. “It is a uniformed service where the public judges a soldier’s discipline in part by the manner in which he or she wears the uniform, as well as by personal appearance.”
Chandler has been especially vocal about “questionable ink” in the service, starting well before the Army officially clamped down.
“The appearance of tattoos detracts from a uniformed service,” Chandler told soldiers at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, in 2012. “The uniformed services, we all generally look the same,” Chandler added. “Now, if you have a tattoo that draws attention to yourself, you have to ask the question, are you a person who is committed to the Army?”
He drove home the point by reminding the soldiers that they had signed their bodies to Uncle Sam. “You are part of something larger,” he told the crowd.
Mark of the warrior
“Tattoos and other permanent forms of body modification have been paramount in establishing the status and reputation of warriors for hundreds, if not thousands, of years,” Lars Krutak, a tattoo anthropologist and the host of Discovery Channel’s Tattoo Hunter, told War is Boring.
“Indigenous warriors of the Kalinga [in The] Philippines, Naga [in] India and Myanmar and Polynesian tribes could only earn the right to be tattooed after having defeated their enemies on the battlefield,” Krutak explained.
The body art wasn’t just a rite of passage. It was a powerful statement directed at friend and foe.
“Heavily tattooed warriors across the indigenous world had a psychological advantage in warfare, because less-marked men feared them by virtue of their war records—which were literally imprinted on their skin for all to see and read,” Krutak said.
European warriors also embraced tattoos. The famous 10th-century Arab traveler Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, in observing the Viking Rus, wrote that “every man is tattooed from finger nails to neck” with green and blue figures of trees and other symbols.
But body art became much less common during the subsequent Christianization of Europe. Some missionaries considered tattoos to be remnants of paganism and ancient superstition. In some extreme cases, authorities outlawed the art.
But tattoos survived. Some Christians got inked to show their devotion. “Pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land in the Middle Ages began acquiring pilgrimage tattoos hundreds of years ago,” Krutak said. “One Coptic Christian family in Jerusalem has been tattooing pilgrims there for nearly 300 years.”
Sailors more than any other combatants popularized body art in Western armed services—after seeing tattooed tribal warriors during long sea voyages. British Royal Navy captain and explorer James Cook came into contact with tattooed tribesman and warriors as he explored Polynesia in the 1760s.
The ink quickly became a topic of discussion among Cook’s crew.
“What can be sufficient inducement to suffer so much pain is difficult to say,” wrote Sir Joseph Banks, a botanist who was along with Cook on his first expedition. “Not one Indian—though I have asked hundreds—would ever give me the least reason for it.”
“Possibly superstition may have something to do with it,” Banks continued. “Nothing else in my opinion could be a sufficient cause for so apparently absurd a custom.”
Although tattoos simultaneously intrigued and revolted Banks, the sailors and marines of the Royal Navy looked at the art with different eyes. Many of them, including Cook’s officers, began experimenting with tattoos.
“These voyagers acquired such tribal forms of tattooing namely in ports-of-call in Polynesia and brought them West to Europe, the United States and other locations,” Krutak explained.
Though some in high society dabbled in tattooing, for centuries the practice remained a hallmark of the working class—and seafarers in particular. A special body-art language evolved among sailors. A dragon, for instance, signified service on a China station. Sailors established tattoo parlors in ports and, in some cases, inked each other while underway.
The practice started to move inland.
The first known professional tattoo artist in the United States was Martin Hildebrandt, a German who immigrated to Boston in 1842. He was the most sought-after body artist of the U.S. Civil War. He traveled across the North and the South, tattooing countless soldiers on both sides of the conflict.
But Hildebrandt wasn’t the only tattoo artist working in the U.S. at this time. Artists flocked to Washington, D.C. to capitalize on the thousands of soldiers stationed in the city.
“Every regiment had its tattooers, with outfits of needles and India-ink, who for a consideration decorated the limbs and bodies of their comrades with flags, muskets, cannons, sabers and an infinite variety of patriotic emblems and warlike and grotesque devices,” Civil War veteran Wilbur F. Hinman’s wrote in his novel Corporal Si Klegg and His Pard.
Hinman also wrote that some units encouraged soldiers to tattoo their names, regiments and residences on their arms or legs to help identify them, should they die in battle.
After the war, Hildebrandt set up a workshop on Oak Street in New York City, which many believe to be the first professional tattoo studio in the United States.
With the end of the Civil War, America turned West. On the American frontier, tattooed U.S. soldiers waged war against tattooed American Indian warriors.
“Among many Native North American societies, especially those of the Great Plains, warriors had to complete a series of ritually mandated acts—war honors—to merit the right of becoming tattooed,” Krutak explained.
“These ‘marks of honor’ were applied by Tribal priests,” Krutak added. “Because men on the Plains had to confront death every time they attempted to distinguish themselves from their fellows, very few persons ever attained the honor of receiving a tattoo.”
Those who did earn tattoos were regarded as “the chosen few,” destined to carry on the lineage and traditions of their people. It was a symbol of high status, but also huge responsibility. “Once marked … these men of honor were required to fulfill specific social obligations to their communities,” Krutak said.
The U.S. Army fought bitterly against the natives. The war in the West decimated the cultures that these inked warriors swore to defend.
Rough and tough
The next big boom for American tattoos was the U.S. entry into World War II. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, young Americans flocked to enlistment offices. For many, the next stop was a tattoo parlor.
Sailors and Marines led the charge. Ink-envious soldiers soon followed the naval servicemen into the centuries-old body-art tradition. The Marine Corps’ globe-and-anchor emblem was a popular choice for Leathernecks. Servicemembers from all branches favored portraits of their wives and girlfriends.
Military commanders for the most part weren’t terribly bothered. The tattoos reflected an enthusiasm for war that officers were eager to sustain. The brass did eventually draw some lines, though. Authorities tried to bar servicemen from getting tattoos of nude women. Scantily-clad pin-ups were common substitutes.
Americans weren’t the only ones getting inked for battle. American troops in The Philippines fought alongside tattooed Kalinga headhunters.
The Kalinga waged a jungle war of resistance against the Japanese, sometimes armed only with spears and axes. They collected their enemies’ heads as trophies. The Japanese feared and despised them.
While doing research in The Philippines, Krutak met Lakay Miguel, a Kalinga veteran. Miguel’s tattoos tell a terrifying story. He has ink tallies behind his ears marking the many skirmishes he fought in, as well as separate tattoos to denote the men he killed.
Miguel told Krutak that one of his fondest memories was taking the mandible of a Japanese soldier and forming it into the handle of his gong.
Tattoos remained popular in Korea and Vietnam. As Vietnam stretched into a long war, American servicemen got tattoos to commemorate multiple tours. Tattoo parlors weren’t hard to find in Saigon.
The culture endured as soldiers left the service. Veterans founded motorcycle clubs, where tattoos play an enormously important role.
Just as society’s attitude toward tattoos has evolved, so have the military’s policies. In the 1990s there was a problem with troops getting extremist markings. Officers had to force their subordinate to strip so they could check them for banned ink.
Around this time, the Pentagon banned hand tattoos.
But at the height of the Iraq War in 2006, the Army relaxed ink regulations in order to qualify more recruits for service. Soldiers welcomed the looser rules.
Thomas Thompson had been in the Army since 1997—and was positively stoked to get arm tattoos. He recalled that “rascist, extremist or indecent” ink was still off the table.
But Thompson noted many Celtic and Scandinavian pagan designs on the Army’s tattoo black list. A superior informed him that white power groups have been known to use runes and other pagan imagery.
Thompson asked the soldier giving the tattoo briefing why the cross wasn’t also banned, as it too was a favorite of extremists. “He told me that the cross was different,” Thompson told War is Boring.
Unmoved by the explanation, Thompson got visible Scandinavian rune tattoos shortly before leaving the Army. He said the ground combat branch isn’t very consistent in its tattoo regulations. Commanders have too much leeway to bar ink they don’t like, he asserted.
Nevertheless, tattoo culture has flourished in the ranks. Body art stood out in the work of the late Tim Hetherington, the photojournalist who teamed up with Sebastion Junger to film the award-winning documentary Restrepo—and who also published the photo book Infidel, named for a tattoo that was popular with soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ex-soldier Dustin Ryan even remembers tattoo artists flying down to the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to work on the servicemen stationed there. As recently as 2009, the U.S. Army’s official Website celebrated military tattoos, even quoting a platoon sergeant saying that in combat units, “a good 90 percent of everyone has a tattoo.”
Tattoo artist Chad Willingham, owner of Aces-N-Eights Tattoo in Lakewood, Washington—right next to Joint Base Lewis-McChord—has found enthusiastic clients in the armed forces.
His connection to military friends prompted him to leave his shop in Los Angeles to move north to Washington. Many of the artists who have worked for him also have military backgrounds.
“We actually get a lot of higher-ups in here,” Willingham says. He said he recently completed a commemorative tattoo for an older Vietnam veteran.
“I think many people who bear a tattoo today would tell you that they are personally sacred to them on some level,” Krutak explained, “whether it is to commemorate the death or birth of a loved one, to mark an important event or membership in a group.”
Willingham agreed. He said most of the tattoos he does for soldiers come with deep meaning. “I’ve seen people get tattoos for their lost friends when they get back, or get tattoos for their family before they leave.”
These tattoos can be therapeutic. When they sit for ink, many soldiers open up about their experiences. Willingham has become close friends with some of them—and stays in touch even when the soldiers are deployed.
In a time when tattoos are more common than ever, it seems odd that the military—a traditional haven for the tattooed—is trying to restrict them. The military and civilians are switching their historical places, with ink gaining acceptance outside the ranks while losing official endorsement within the services.
Ryan doesn’t think that the ink-rules are actually really about tattoos themselves. The real reason for the crackdown, he said, is the pressure to cut personnel in a time of shrinking budgets. For leaders, tattoos are as convenient a criterion as any for selecting troops to cut from the ranks—never mind that ink might actually be evidence of deep combat experience … and even maturity.
“It seems petty and underhanded,” Thompson remarked.
Thompson said he finds Chandler’s remarks about tattoos undermining professionalism to be particularly disingenuous. He pointed out that tattoos beneath the knee would only be visible while wearing a physical training uniform.
That’s the uniform soldiers wear on their morning runs, which almost inevitably become stained with sweat—and smell like death.“You never look less professional than you do in your PTs,” Thompson said. Tattoos aren’t the problem.
“At the end of the day, our profession is killing people,” Thompson added. “How professional can you really be?”
Willingham said he has heard whispers of soldiers, some in positions of influence, stalling the enforcement of new ink regs. Some commanders reportedly have put off taking the file photos—a subtle form of protest. They’ve been telling soldiers to get whatever tattoos they want, quickly, thus ensuring the art gets grandfathered in.
Willingham recounted the story of an Army couple, a husband and wife who are both on active duty, who had unfinished tattoos. They colored them in with magic markers before their file photos were taken, so that they would be able to get the art finished at their leisure.
Ryan said he doubts the restrictions will stick. Over the centuries, armies and their regulations have come and gone, but tattoos have endured. “It’ll go away,” Ryan said of the new body-art rule book. “Something somewhere will pop off again and they’ll need people.”