Before ink dries on rules, soldiers rush to get tattoos

By Kirk Johnson / New York Times News Service

Published May 1, 2014 at 12:01AM

LAKEWOOD, Wash. — 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 March 31 with a 30-day window of unit-by-unit enforcement — has 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 U.S. 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 Monday to Aces-n-Eights Tattoo and Piercing here in Lakewood for some work on his left forearm. “I like getting tattoos,” said Stevens, who is originally from Portland, Maine.

Tattoo artists like Tyrell Barbour, at Stay Fresh Tattoos on Lakewood’s main commercial drag, 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 rein 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.