When it comes to the appearance of tattoos across history, every culture and age has a different outlook on the art of body ink. Some reveled in the process, while others detested it. But, regardless of the cultural outlook of the practice, one thing can be said – soldiers and tattoos have walked hand in hand for thousands of years in almost every age and country.
Tattooing today has become a national, correction – worldwide, pastime. You can’t walk into a bar, shopping center, or college campus without encountering someone donning a body full of inked artwork. It has become recognized in almost every culture and been appearing in every archeological find over the last several decades. And when it comes to the military – you’re sure to find just as much body art in the ranks, despite ever-changing policies on the matter.
But before we can look at the relationship between soldiers of today and tattoos, let’s take a stroll through history and see how this love affair got its start.
In the times of the ancient Roman Empire, beginning around 27 BC, tattoos were frowned upon. Unlike the ancient Egyptians, who saw them as healing treatments, the Romans believed voluntary tattooing was barbaric. These expansive Empires utilized body ink practices as a means of labeling those deemed unworthy – much like the Germans during the Nazi occupation of World War II. This generally consisted of slaves, prisoners of war, sacrilegious individuals, and criminals. However, they did find one other use for this ancient method of tattooing… marking soldiers.
The Romans found that marking their soldiers who were headed off to war was a simple and efficient way to minimize deserters. Tattoo removal of the time period was so excruciating – a literal chemical burn – and often times ineffective, not to mention expensive, so soldiers found it hard to flea ranks once they had been enlisted. The Greeks shared this belief and utilized tattooing for the same purposes as the Romans.
Other cultures did not look at tattoos with the same disdain. The Thracian warriors, for example, wore their tattoos with pride. Soldiers of Thrace were often times held in high standard across the community, and tattoos showed off their job description in plain sight. Soldiers on the ancient British Isles were also tattooed and proud – showing their appreciation for battle across their exposed skin with fierce pleasure. The Britons, Iberians, Gauls, Goths, Teutons, Picts, and Scots were some of the tribes that followed this line of tattooing culture – although, civilians of these tribes also practiced the art of tattooing as a worshipping method.
During the rise of Christianity, however, tattooing fell out of practice as the dominant religion deemed them sacrilegious. While some cultures still practiced, the art seemed to fade into the background. That is, until the period of the Civil War in the United States. During this period, military personnel and sailors began to frequent tattoo parlors in locations such as New York City, in order to show their pride for their side’s military and ideals. This became quite a fad, and in the twentieth century, tattoos became part of the unofficial uniform for the Modern World soldier. Whether motivation, dedication, or pride – soldiers began to bear their country’s flag, legion number, or branch logo/motto across their skin. Some soldiers would tattoo the name of the woman they left behind, or a fallen soldier’s name. Some would get a tattoo based on the culture of the country they were visiting.
Today, tattooed soldiers have become a standard. In fact, the military has altered their policies on this form of body alteration several times over the last two centuries. The most recent update to the official policy has redacted the restriction on size of the tattoos and now allows soldiers to tattoo their arms and legs as long as they are not visible in the Army Service Uniform. This means soldiers sporting full sleeve tattoos and leg pieces are granted acceptance into the military, as long as they do not appear below the wrist, or above the neckline. The only exception to this rule is a ring tattoo – as these have become increasingly popular for married couples. While size and quantity are no longer regulated, soldiers are not allowed to don any derogatory, extremist, sexist, or racist tattoos regardless of placement. While each branch of the military has its own regulations regarding tattoos, general consensus of the Armed Forces seems to be leniency towards body ink.
The military’s acceptance of tattooing comes as no surprise when you look back on the history built between soldiers and tattoos. Tattooed soldiers seem to appear throughout history, showing their pride for the cause or country that they are risking their lives for. So why shouldn’t they have that devotion inked across their skin – and hearts – forever?