Effective Wednesday, airmen like Master Sgt. Joseph Rivera and Tech Sgt. Robert Knipfer can roll up their sleeves and remain in regulation dress.
The United States Air Force is again changing its policy on tattoos and body modifications. Doing so both opens career opportunities for current tattooed airmen and allows a greater base of potential recruits, says a force support squad commander.
The last major change was in 1998, and this change reflects changing societal norms, said Major Jeff Elliott, force support squadron commander at Scott Air Force Base. Body art may now cover more than 25 percent of a body part and don’t have to be covered by uniform, which is a major departure from previous regulations.
The updated policy also allows one tattoo band on one finger of one hand. The head is still an unauthorized area for tattoos. Airmen are barred from tattoos that are related to gangs, extremist and supremacist organizations, or body art that advocates sexual, racial, ethnic or religious discrimination.
The relaxed policy is “a great opportunity to get a larger pool of applicants” to the Air Force.
Major Jeff Elliott, force support squad commander at Scott Air Force Base
Elliott said about half of the contacts and applicants for the Air Force have some kind of tattoo, and one in five had enough ink coverage that the service would have to review before welcoming the airman into service.
One Belleville tattoo artist says he is already seeing interest from airmen in adding to body art now that the regulations are being relaxed.
“At least 30 percent of my business is military,” said Jason Wilson, of Integrity Tattoos in Belleville. “A lot of Air Force because of how close we are, and two (of three) of us are both Army veterans. We’re seeing more of those people wanting to get more extensive tattoos now that regulations will be lifted and there will be less blow back from getting more.”
More acceptable applicants
Rivera, who was an Air Force recruiter from 2009 to 2013, said he would have to send photos and take measurements to ensure the tattoo did not cover more than 25 percent of a body part.
“A lot of qualified applicants, I had to walk down to the Army,” he said.
The relaxed policy is “a great opportunity to get a larger pool of applicants” to the Air Force, Elliot said.
Elliott has tattoos on his back, and he said, “I would get more, but my wife” prefers he doesn’t.
Both Rivera, 37, and Knipfer, 31, came into the Air Force with tattoos, and now have more than either can count.
“It allows a little bit of self-expression,” Knipfer said. At the same time, being part of the Air Force is being part of “the heritage, and that’s awesome” and something he plans to be part of for several more years.
Some special duties within the service have been largely off-limits to those with tattoos, even those falling well within the regulations of placement and size.
Knipher has two full-sleeve tattoos, and his legs are also covered but his back is “an open canvas” ready for the next one, he says.
The military are more willing to invest in a bigger, nicer, elaborate piece of artwork.
Jason Wilson, tattoo artist at Integrity Tattoo
Because of the ink to his wrists, he had to ask for a waiver to become a training instructor at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, where basic training takes place. His waiver was denied.
“You’re a great candidate, but ...” he says he was told of his tattoos. Since the announcement in mid-January of the policy change, he’s spoken with the training squadron there and is hopeful that he will be re-assigned.
Some special duty posts are likely to be less open to those with tattoos covering more than 25 percent of a body part, Rivera said. Those include recruitment and training, both posts that are higher profile.
Elliott said not being accepted for special duties “definitely slows any (career) progress moving forward” but does not stop career advancement.
“Those standards are way more stringent,” Elliott said of the special duty assignments, but the change “goes back to societal norms. For those that are squadron commanders now, that (tattoos) is the norm.”
The military life — and the moving that comes with it — may have something to do with airmen going for tattoos instead of furniture, Wilson says.
“The military are more willing to invest in a bigger, nicer, elaborate pieces of artwork,” he said.
For those considering art, Wilson has some warnings — he has seen changes to policy before.
“It seems they try to relax on these things because they’re short on people enlisting, then people get extreme and then they have to cut back,” he said. “It’s almost like a teenager being out of control. If the soldiers can’t police themselves with good taste, then the superiors are going to have to do something.”
Body art that is not in good taste is also risky, Wilson said. Some military members who get pinup-style tattoos of topless women later come in to have a bikini top or shirt added to the ink, he said.
“Nudity is not going to help you climb the ladder in the military,” the tattoo artist said.