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US Marines will be allowed full-sleeve arm and leg tattoos for the first time in 15 years

For the first time in 15 years, US Marines will be allowed full-sleeve tattoos that cover most of their arms and legs – but inked soldiers could be banned taking part in ceremonial other high visibility assignments.

The Marine Corps prohibited sleeve tattoos in 2007 and Corps officials kept the ban in place when the tattoo policy was updated in 2016 by banning Marines from having tattoos around their elbows and knees.

In a tweet posted on Friday, the Marines failed to mention tattoos specifically on arms and legs in the most recent revision to the tattoo policy, which says, ‘Marines may have tattoos on any area of the body, excluding, the head, neck, and hands, in according with this bulletin.’ 

The Marine corps also bans tattoos that depict or symbolize extremist organizations, and those that depict racial or gender violence.

However, the newly-update policy does warn Marines that they could face career-damaging consequences for their tattoos, such as being banned from future duty assignments. 

‘Officers and enlisted Marines may continue to be assigned or allowed to serve on Special Duty Assignment, although assignment to ceremonial and other high visibility units may be restricted,’ the policy reads.

The US Marines have updated their tattoo policy allowing full-sleeve arm and leg pieces for the first time in 15 years. Tattoos on the neck, head and hands remain prohibited

The US Marines have updated their tattoo policy allowing full-sleeve arm and leg pieces for the first time in 15 years. Tattoos on the neck, head and hands remain prohibited

The Marines Corp decision to ban sleeve tattoos on legs and arms came after an increase in 2007, at the height of the Iraq War. Pictured: A U.S. Marine in Iraq showing gun tattoos on both of his arms in 2004

The Marines Corp decision to ban sleeve tattoos on legs and arms came after an increase in 2007, at the height of the Iraq War. Pictured: A U.S. Marine in Iraq showing gun tattoos on both of his arms in 2004

The new policy also specifically defines what it considers as ‘extremist tattoos’ and why those are prohibited, while the Defense Department continues to look for a definition of what exactly extremist activity is. 

Since President Joe Biden took office in January, the Pentagon has looked for ways to fight extremism within the military, such as ordering all units to hold stand-downs to talk about the problem. 

A retired Special Forces soldier along with other veterans as well as some service members, including an active-duty Marine lieutenant colonel were part of the mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6th last year. 

The Defense Department’s efforts to remove extremists personnel serving in the military have not gone down well with Republican lawmakers. 

The Marine tattoo policy now describes extremist tattoos as those that ‘advocate, engage in, or support the forceful, violent, unconstitutional or otherwise unlawful overthrow of the government of the United States, any state, commonwealth, district, or territory in the United States; or advocates, engages in, or encourages military personnel or DoD or U.S. Coast Guard civilian employees to violate laws or disobey lawful orders or regulations for the purpose of disrupting military activities.’

Of all the changes mentioned in the latest version of the tattoo policy, the decision to allow sleeve tattoos may be the most significant because of the Corps’ decision to ban such excessive tattoos in March 2007 has been an issue that has never been fully resolved.

The decision, which came at the apogee of the Iraq War, followed a months-long review that started in August 2006.

‘Concerns over excessive tattooing, specifically sleeve tattoos, was raised by the August 2006 Sergeants Major Symposium,’ Marine Corps spokesman 1st Lt. Brian P. Donnelly told Stars and Stripes at the time. ‘Marines’ appearances are a direct reflection of the Marine Corps and it is felt excessive tattoos are not in line with the traditional values of the Marine Corps.’  

An increase in Marines getting more tattoos on their legs and arms happened during the Iraq War, said John L. Estrada, who served as the 15th Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps when the sleeve tattoo ban took effect.

Some of those tattoos were sexually vulgar in nature, racist, or offensive in other ways, pushing a lengthy debate throughout the Marine Corps’ leadership about whether the Corps needed to impose limitations on the variety of tattoos Marines could get, Estrada said.

‘Marines always had tattoos – let’s not get that wrong,’ Estrada said. ‘But it was not as extreme until we noticed it popping up during the last war, the invasion of Iraq, which I participated in. The consensus with the leadership back then was that we needed to put this in check because it took away from the appearance of professionalism of Marines.’

A U.S. Marine from 2nd Marine Division MP Company shows off his tattoo that reads "Protect Us" at his forward operating base in Farah Province, southern Afghanistan, on September 27, 2009

A U.S. Marine from 2nd Marine Division MP Company shows off his tattoo that reads ‘Protect Us’ at his forward operating base in Farah Province, southern Afghanistan, on September 27, 2009

Estrada told Task & Force on Thursday that he opposed the reacceptance of Marines to have sleeve tattoos again — a move which he said would be seen as ‘retreating – before the latest changes to the tattoo policy had been announced, said he opposed allowing Marines to have sleeve tattoos again — a move which he said would be considered as ‘retreating.’ 

‘We are evolving on race; we are evolving on diversity and everything else – this is not evolving on professionalism if that’s what’s going to happen here,’ Estrada said. ‘We’re going to be taking a step backwards.’ 

But, many Marines who served during the Post 9/11 wars would argue that sleeve tattoos was considered as a way to memorialize the fallen as they would ink the names of friends they had lost on their arms and legs.   

Some Marines who had served in combat even saw offense to the ban on sleeve tattoos. Brian Davenport, who was not re-enrolled because of his tattoos, told Marine Corps Times in 2017 that he felt the Marine Corps had suddenly determined that his combat experience in Afghanistan no longer mattered.

‘You had leaders saying, ‘We don’t care that you’re a combat veteran,” Davenport said at the time. ‘I had a second lieutenant, he was brand new and he’s like: ‘No one cares about Afghanistan. That’s over. We’re moving on. There’s a new Marine Corps.”  

The new policy seeks to simplify the Marine Corps’ rules around tattoos by bringing all Marines, regardless of rank or billet, to the same standard

In January 2020, Marine Cpl. Jasper Piala created and started an online petition calling on the Marine Corps to acknowledge sleeve tattoos. As of today, it has received more than 75,000 signatures. 

‘Competent and decorated Marines in the past and present who have proven to be an asset for the Marine Corps have been denied reenlistment and advancement in their field due to increasingly restrictive tattoo regulations,’ Piala wrote in the Change.org petition

‘This creates an increasingly damaging stigma, within which a Marine who has or desires tattoos outside of the standing regulations is seen as lacking discipline. There exists no correlation, positive or negative, between tattoos and effectiveness, efficiency, discipline, or lethality.’ 

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