Tattoo you: No use in crying if you don't ask before you ink

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Phyllis E. Keith
  • 624th Regional Support Group Public Affairs
With the Pacific Ink & Art Expo in Honolulu this weekend, many of the 45,000 plus military troops stationed here in Hawaii, are expected to flock downtown to the Blaisdell Exhibition Hall to check out the 700 local and international tattoo artists who set up shop at this annual event.


Senior Master Sgt. Carl Nixon, Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) flight chief for the Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC) Recruiting Service here said, "Even though a tattoo artist may claim to know military guidelines for tattoos, keep in mind we have the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps, along with the Coast Guard on this island, each with a slightly different take on what is acceptable."   


"It's best to ask first," said Chief Master Sgt. Joseph Vigil, command chief of the 624th Regional Support Group and a veteran with more than 36 years in the Air Force. Vigil said he does not have any tattoos and said he got a special operations assignment based on being tattoo-free.


"Major commands like AFRC, PACAF, or Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) can impose their own restrictions on tattoos," said Nixon. "Individual commanders also have the authority to make rules within their units that limit tattooing if they think legal, moral, safety, sanitary, or foreign country cultural reasons warrant it," he said.


Master Sgt. Charlene McCombs, in-service recruiter here for AFRC Recruiting Service said, "Before you get a tattoo, make sure you have the facts. That applies to whether you're in the Air Force Reserve, or if you want to transfer from the Army, Navy, or Marine Corps."


McCombs whose office is in Hangar 2, Hickam Field, Hawaii, recruits active duty members who want to join the Air Force Reserve.


"If a prior service person has a questionable tattoo, the commander makes a determination whether or not to accept that individual with their current body art. If the commander says, 'No, I don't want that in my unit,' there's nothing we can do as recruiters," said McCombs.


Air Force Instruction (AFI) 36-2903, Dress and Personal Appearance of Air Force Personnel was updated in 2011 to include a measuring tool for tattoos--"Tattoos or brands that exceed 25% coverage of the exposed body part, or are located above the collarbone, are considered excessive."


The measuring tool explains step-by-step how to measure the area of a tattoo and the exposed body part to figure out the percentage covered.


"Everyone is different as far as proportions go," said Nixon. "A tattoo might appear large on someone who is 5'4". If we measure it and it's on the line, we will take a picture of it and send it to the waiver authority at AFRC Recruiting Service, Robins Air Force Base, Georgia, for a military image determination for the size," he said.


The AFI requires partial inches to be rounded up when measuring a tattoo. "For example, if a tattoo on your forearm is 3 ¼ inches wide, it would be rounded up to 4 inches," said Nixon.


Master Sgt. Sachel Garcia, line recruiter for AFRC Recruiting Service who enlists brand new recruits into the Air Force Reserve, said. "If I enlist you, and before you leave for basic training you go out and get a tattoo without consulting me first, it's possible your enlistment could be curtailed and you could be disqualified from joining if it violates the AFI."


"If I think one of your tattoos could be gang-related, I will send it to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI) for determination," said Garcia.


I have yet to see a gang tattoo in Hawaii, but we do keep an eye out for those, said Nixon.


Nixon and his staff recruit for Air Force Reserve positions in Hawaii, Guam, Japan, Korea and Alaska, and have seen their fair share of tattoos.


Nixon said, "In addition to a military tradition of tattooing that goes as far back as the Civil War, we have the Polynesian culture with an even older history of body art that's been experiencing a revival."


Tech. Sgt. Archie McClellan, a knowledge operations management craftsman with the 624th Regional Support Group, was born and raised on Oahu and said he planned to get a tattoo with the Polynesian method of hand-tapping. He said, "It's a tradition on the Hawaiian side of my family. There's a guy in Haleiwa who does it the old traditional way. He's going to design it for me, based on my Hawaiian history."


Su'a Sulu'ape Angela, a tattoo artist from San Diego, Calif., said master tattoo artist Sulu'ape Petelo taught her the ancient Samoan art form of hand-tap tattoo known as tatau. She said, "In several of the Polynesian cultures there are patterns that mean protection from harm and protection from disease. A lot of it is considered a spiritual thing."


A firefighter with the 624th Civil Engineering Squadron. Staff Sgt. Jonathan Onekea, a Hawaiian, said he got his tattoos based solely on personal preference. He said each was from a different artist and that he had gotten them in his travels throughout his Air Force career. He said he preferred the modern method of tattooing because it was faster than the hand-tap method.


Angela said that a tattoo shows a willingness to commit. She said people have forgotten that it is a sign of strength to endure the pain of getting a tattoo.


With her shop in the San Diego area, Angela sees plenty of Navy and Marine Corps clientele pass through. She said a lot of enlisted members and officers said they didn't understand why they were being regulated so much since their occupations were not clandestine. "They feel, 'I might die in this war; I should be able to put this on my body,'" she said.


The Marine Corps tattoo policy states, "The growing trend of excessive tattoos limits world-wide assignability of Marines and detracts from one of the most visible hallmarks of our corps--our distinguished appearance." The AFI uses different wording to say the same thing--"The image of a disciplined and committed Airman is incompatible with the extreme, the unusual, and the fad."


Angela said, "Tattoos are not a fad. It's something that's been around for 20,000 years. It's one thing that actually unites people."


Senior Master Sgt. Robert Prather, superintendent of logistics and plans with the 624th Regional Support Group said, "It should be categorized as an art form."


He said, "There probably will be a change in the instruction because the younger troops who are getting a lot of the tattoos are starting to move up in the ranks, and so they're going to have a voice to where they can start changing things. I'm not saying they're going to make any radical changes, but we'll probably see more leniency on placement in the future. Again, it can't take away from the appearance of the uniform."


Angela said, "We know how to tell the kids, 'No, it's too far regarding regulation," when young Navy or Marine personnel come to her shop wanting a tattoo that pushes the envelope, i.e., tattoos cannot be sexist (express nudity), racist, eccentric, anti-American; or associated with illegal drugs or an extremist group or organization.


"I don't want to have a tattoo that says 'death and destruction' on it showing when I'm in my military uniform," said Prather.


Tech. Sgt. Keo Noochan, a knowledge operations management craftsman with the 624th RSG, said the strict tattoo policies made it difficult for qualified people to enter the service. "They don't want people of certain subcultural backgrounds--piercings and tattoos all that stuff--which is their loss. It's the norm nowadays," he said. Noochan planned to complete his arm sleeves after he finished his 20 years of service, he said.


"The whole purpose of the Air Force doing what they're doing setting the standards for tattoos, piercings and brandings is they do not want anybody to bring discredit to the uniform or the service itself," Prather said.


"The bottom line with AFRC," said Nixon, "is that any tattoos or brands that are prejudicial to good order and discipline or are of a nature that tends to bring discredit upon the Air Force Reserve are prohibited in and out of uniform."


At the same time, every Airman has ". . . the right, within limits, to express individuality through his or her appearance," according to the AFI.


"As a reservist, it's your duty to read the AFI and talk to your supervisor or first sergeant before you get a tattoo," said Vigil.


Ultimately, the commander of the unit you want to join has the final say whether he or she wants you as a member.


Col. Maynard "Max" Mendoza, commander of the 624th Regional Support Group, was born in Hawaii and graduated from the University Hawaii. He said, "The tribal tattoos have gotten much more popular and elaborate in comparison to when I was growing up here. I'm not a tattoo person, but the style and the taste of the tattoos that our folks have is very nice. It's a great piece of art."


Mendoza said the reservists in his group are compliant. "It's evident that our Airmen know the boundaries of tattoos."


The Pacific Ink & Art Expo, now in its third year in Honolulu, will be heavily attended by military personnel looking for that next tattoo. Remember, whatever your branch of service, you can do both--exercise your right to express yourself with this ancient art form and maintain an acceptable military image. But "cover yourself" first, by knowing the limitations.




For more information about opportunities in the Air Force Reserve, call 800-257-1212 or go to


For more information on joining the Air Force Reserve in Hawaii, Guam, Alaska, Japan or Korea, contact Senior Master Sgt. Carl Nixon, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, 808-448-3804.


If you are currently on active duty or prior service in the PACAF region, contact Master Sgt. Charlene McCombs, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, 808-448-0652.


If you are new to the military and located here in Hawaii, contact Master Sgt. Sachel Garcia, Pearlridge Shopping Center, Aiea, Hawaii, 808-486-5246.