Military Ink: Veterans, Tattoos, and Employability

Updated: Jun 11, 2021

In 1991, an “Iceman” was discovered near the Italian-Austrian border. Carbon-dated at approximately 5,200 years old, the Iceman was found to have tattoos all over his body. Tattooing is a practice (or an art form, as some would argue) that dates back thousands of years and has historically been used to symbolize high status, low status, criminal status, military status, illness, injury, or religious affiliation. In some cases it has even been used as a memory aid. Mummified remains and written records reveal the occurrence of tattoos and tattooing in ancient civilizations all over the world. In fact, in the body modification realm, tattooing predates piercing by over 7,000 years.

That’s all very interesting, but does it mean you should finally bite the bullet and get that star-spangled full sleeve you’ve always dreamed of? You know, the one that proudly proclaims, “These Colors Don’t Run” in Old English font? You might want to mull over whether or not it could hurt your post-service job prospects first.

As the individual service branches gradually relax restrictions on tattoos in their dress and appearance standards, many service members and veterans are getting their first tattoos or adding to their canvas. But will finally pulling the trigger on that long-desired tattoo hinder your ability to obtain a job after you retire or separate? As you transition into your civilian career, it is natural to be worried about the effect your tattoos may have on your employability.

Tattoos in the American Military

It is rumored that in 1846, German immigrant Martin Hildebrandt opened America’s first tattoo parlor in New York City. Hildebrandt eventually travelled throughout the country, tattooing Civil War soldiers with cannons, sabres, and a variety of patriotic images. Civil War veteran Wilbur F. Hinman wrote, “Every regiment had its tattoers [sic], 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.” By 1925, nearly 90% of Navy sailors were tattooed. Despite a waning of public opinion and acceptance of tattoos post-World War I, the practice remained popular within the American military.

Tattoos are not a rarity in the military/veteran community today. Current and former military members have one of the highest percentages of people with tattoos of any demographic. A 2014 poll showed 36% of veterans and active service members have at least one, which is double the percentage in those who haven’t served in the military (18%). These stats shouldn’t come as a surprise to veterans. War paint has been synonymous with military operations for centuries, and American military culture is no exception.

A 2013 study in the Military Medicine Journal revealed some interesting facts about tattoos in today’s military. Young enlisted males are more likely to get their first tattoo during their first enlistment, and the number of deployments will not only increase the likelihood of having a tattoo but also the number of tattoos. Young commissioned officers (O1-O3) are the most likely to get a first tattoo while under the influence of a substance, with by far the highest percentage of regret. Approximately 8% of all military tattoos are a person’s name, ahead of military branch symbols (which are around 4%).

Policy and Regulation

All branches of the armed forces have hemmed and hawed over whether or not they accept tattoos in their service members and to what extent. As late as 2014, some branches clamped down and enacted more restrictive policies. Leadership at the time felt as if tattoos were having an effect on bearing and discipline. Many veterans and service members disagreed. Marty Skovlund, Jr., author and former Army ranger wrote in the Havoc Journal:

“In fact I cannot think of more disciplined guys both in training and on the field of battle. I know I am not alone in this feeling either, I don’t think there is a single soldier out there who cannot name someone that they respect the hell out of who has a sleeve tattoo. So where is this ‘anti-tattoo’ sentiment coming from? I would say that it stems from a misunderstanding of the warrior culture in general, and more specifically, a miscalculation of where the lack of discipline in the Army today is coming from.”

A shift has taken place in recent years, as all branches found restrictive policies to have a (not surprising) negative impact on recruiting and retention. The Army no longer limits the size or number of tattoos allowed. In 2016, the Navy enacted its most inclusive and least restrictive policy to date, which even allows one tattoos on the neck, not to exceed 1 inch in height or length. In 2017, the Air Force removed its longstanding “25% rule,” which restricted the amount of exposed skin while in uniform/PT gear that could be tattooed. The Marines took the longest to make a major change, enacting a lighter policy in March of 2018. “Society is changing its views of tattoos, and we have to change along with that,” former Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno stated in 2015. “It makes sense. Soldiers have grown up in an era when tattoos are much more acceptable.”

Today, branches share relatively similar policies. Tattoos that are controversial, offensive, indecent, sexist, or racist are prohibited across the board. Tattoos above the neckline (with the exception of the aforementioned Navy policy) or on the hands (though the Air Force and Coast Guard allow a tattoo on one finger, like a wedding band), elbows, or knees are generally not authorized. “Permanent makeup” is authorized in some cases as long as it does not conflict with makeup policies. If you have a disallowed tattoo, you must either get it removed (which is an expensive and extremely painful process) or be subject to administrative separation. Covering up disallowed tattoos with bandages or makeup is not authorized, either.


The bad news? Around a third of the country still believes that visible tattoos are unsuitable in the workplace, and around a third of hiring managers believe that having a visible tattoo could limit career potential. Even worse, no state has a law or policy protecting someone with body art from discrimination.

If you are a fan of body art, the good news is that tattooing is becoming much more prevalent, and the stigma surrounding it is waning. Overall, the perception that tattoos are appropriate in the workplace is shifting: only 22% of people ages 18-22 years old think visible tattoos are inappropriate in a work environment versus 63% of people ages 60 and older. Also, 73% of employers won’t be dissuaded from hiring you if you have visible tattoos (on areas aside from your face or hands). 94% of people with tattoos would hire someone with tattoos. Some even argue that having tattoos could you land a job, especially if the company’s target consumer base is more youthful.

Don’t Go Overboard

It’s good to know that getting a tattoo won’t necessarily hurt your job prospects, but there are exceptions. Generally speaking, you should think twice before getting any ink that is visible while wearing a full suit or long-sleeved professional attire. The following tattoo locations are rated the most likely to dissuade a potential employer from bringing you on board, starting with the “worst”:

  • Face tattoo -- I sincerely hope you don’t need this one explained.

  • Neck tattoo -- Personally, I’m a big fan of the tasteful neck tattoo. My wife says she’ll leave me if I get one, though.

  • Hand tattoo -- This is another tattoo that will be hard to hide on a job interview, and research shows it may cast a negative light on your first overall impression.

  • Full sleeve tattoo -- If you are wearing a suit to your interview, you should be fine. If the job is of the variety that long-sleeved professional attire doesn’t make sense for the interview, your potential employer is less likely to care anyways. Go for it.

  • Forearm tattoo -- Same here; I wouldn’t worry about this one.

  • Upper arm tattoo -- I can’t think of a single job interview situation where you’ll be wearing a tank top. I wouldn’t worry about this one at all.

  • Lower back tattoo -- If your would-be employer sees your lower back tattoo during an interview, you’ve likely got bigger problems than having said tattoo.

Also, if you have an offensive or racist tattoo visible anywhere, you will disqualify yourself from consideration by over 96% of hiring managers. Consider removal (and potential professional help). Actually, if you have a racist or sexist tattoo anywhere you should probably consider removing yourself from society altogether.

Wear It with Pride

So what do you say when your boss, a coworker, or potential employer makes a comment about your tattoos? I make sure my response is always with a positive tone and not at all defensive: “I got them during my time in the service. It was definitely part of the culture.” This completely truthful statement will usually deflect any further comments or negative vibes. Nobody wants to have a go at your military service, nor should they. Tattoos can help a veteran tell his or her story. Tattoos can help a veteran heal.

It is important that you know your audience, however. I held a position where a majority of my time was spent networking with older, more traditional professionals from the banking industry. Needless to say, I thought it wise to wear long-sleeved dress shirts or a coat. Before you seek a new job or career, make sure you look into the norms for the industry you are pursuing and adjust your approach accordingly. And it bears mentioning that it is highly unlikely you’d be denied a position for not having a tattoo. Generally speaking, though, the tide is beginning to turn, and there are even large corporations publicly touting their acceptance of visible tattoos in the workplace. I, for one, believe that’s a big step in the right direction.

Have your hid you tattoos for a job interview? Have you ever faced discrimination because of your ink? Please connect with me and share your experiences!

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