Soldiers in a rush before ink dries on tattoo rules

THE NEW YORK TIMESMay 5, 2014 

Sgt. Ray Stevens gets a tattoo last month from Skip, an artist at Aces-n-Eights Tattoo and Piercing in Lakewood.

MATTHEW RYAN WILLIAMS — For The New York Times

An Army soldier walked into Brass Monkey Tattoo last month and told Dan Brewer, the tattoo artist, to go for it.

“He dropped a thousand bucks,” Brewer said, standing in the shop here, about five minutes from the gate of Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Ten hours under the needle later, an ex-girlfriend’s name from a previous tattoo had been covered up, and a memorial to six buddies lost in the war in Afghanistan had been inked across the soldier’s back and ribs. “It was a good day,” Brewer said.

The military tattoo has a deep history, with reports going back at least to the Roman legions, historians say. Images of adventure or battle — if not a haunting beauty from the frontiers of Gaul — could be captured forever on a bicep. Declarations of unit loyalty or individuality, or both, could be sealed through rituals of ink and pain.

But now a tightening of the Army’s regulations on the wear and appearance of uniforms and insignia — issued on March 31 with a 30-day window of unit-by-unit enforcement — have driven a land rush here and at other Army posts to get "tatted," as soldiers call it, while the old rules still applied. About 40,000 active duty and reserve personnel are stationed at Lewis-McChord, about an hour south of Seattle, making it one of the United States military’s largest bases.

“I’m just going to let her do it until I can’t take anymore,” said Spc. Charles Chandler, 22, an Army infantryman, as he pulled up his left sleeve to show the canvas he planned to present to his tattoo artist this week.

The new rules restrict total inkage on arms and legs visible on a soldier wearing short sleeves and short pants. They also limit the size of each visible tattoo to no bigger than the wearer’s open hand. But the Army is also generally allowing soldiers to keep the tattoos they had before the effective date of the new rules, as long as they do not violate prohibitions on things like obscenity, racism or extremism, and are documented with a photograph before the deadline.

Hence the rush to get inked. With some superior officers, many of them tattooed as well, giving ample warning as to when those photographs would be taken, soldiers said they have experienced a unique window of opportunity — but also, perhaps, a nudge — to get that next tattoo, or a lot of them.

“I would probably do it anyway; I’ll just do it sooner,” said Sgt. Ray Stevens, who came after work on Monday to Aces-n-Eights Tattoo and Piercing here in Lakewood for some work on his left forearm. “I like getting tattoos,” said Sergeant Stevens, who is originally from Portland, Me.

Tattoo artists like Tyrell Barbour, at Stay Fresh Tattoos on Bridgeport Way, said they had never seen such fat times. "I’m getting hit like no tomorrow,” he said. “Especially younger military, but a lot of superiors, too," he added.

Military regulation of tattoos, or at least the attempt, is not new. Shortly before World War I, military authorities tried to reign in wayward ink with a prohibition on “indecent or obscene” tattoos — mostly naked women in those days — but allowed existing depictions to be altered to meet the new rule, which led to many a discreet grass skirt as cover-up.

The Navy updated its tattoo policies again in 2003, and again in 2006, and with a further update in 2010 — nodding to the modern military of men and women serving together — that tweaks the rules on so-called permanent makeup tattoos, allowed for eyebrows, eyeliner, lipstick and lip liner.

“Permanent makeup shall be in good taste,” the Navy’s regulations say.

The Marines tightened their personal grooming and appearance regulations in 2010, the Air Force in 2012. All four main military branches prohibit tattoos around the neck. No person with what is called a sleeve — or fully tattooed arm — can become a Marine.

“They’re asserting an individualistic identity,” said Anna Felicity Friedman, a tattoo historian and blogger at tattoohistorian.com, describing her hypothesis about the average soldier or sailor’s love affair with skin art.

“People who are in situations of depersonalization, whether it’s wearing uniforms, or other ways stripped of the ability to assert their identity, tend to react to this depersonalization by getting tattoos,” said Dr. Friedman, who is heavily tattooed herself.

Prisoners, chefs and athletes are in much the same boat, she believes — all straining to declare difference to a community, or a marketplace, that might other otherwise have a hard time telling them apart.

The tattoo economy on the edge of Lewis-McChord is bracing for change, too. Brewer at Brass Monkey, where about 80 percent of the business is military, said the shop’s owner was anticipating a big drop in customers after the regulations are fully in place, and is planning a move to Tacoma, about 10 miles north, to be nearer the city’s night life and bar scene.

But at South Tacoma Tattoo, just a few blocks away, the tattoo artists said they thought there would be still plenty of skin left to decorate when things quieted down. The new rules do not say anything about chests and backs and other parts of the body always covered by a uniform, they said.

And Chandler, the infantryman who was planning out his arm art this week, said he was also studying the rules carefully as to what might push the boundaries of content and good taste. Regardless of the timing question on getting tattooed now, he said, he wants to re-enlist in a few years and does not want any overly racy skin art to hold him back.

So the girl he plans on his arm will be clothed. “A pinup girl, to stay in the regs,” he said. “You have to adapt to the Army — the Army doesn’t adapt to you.”

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