Lance Cpl. Tom Blachard shows the tattoo "sleeve" that covers one of his arms. Marines complain that the policy permitting tattoos on the lower arms is interpreted differently at different commands. Commandant Gen. James Conway says regulations clarifying the rules will be announced within weeks. (Marine Corps Times)
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Ambiguity about how far Marines can go with ink on their arms will soon be cleared up, according to the Corps' top officer.
The service will outline its tattoo policy within weeks, with a goal of balanced interpretation, Commandant Gen. James Conway said.
The proposed policy is circulating among Marine expeditionary force commanders and will soon land on the commandant's desk, Conway said following town hall meetings with Marines in Missouri in early March.
"Whatever the proposal is, we're going to do [it] out of pure fairness," he said.
Marines have long complained that the existing policy allowing extensive lower-arm tattoos — commonly called sleeves — is not interpreted the same way by all commands.
Leathernecks are generally considered within regulations if they don't have ink on the backs of their hands or above the neck, although Sgt. Maj. John Estrada, sergeant major of the Marine Corps, has admitted the policy is vague.
Aiming to clear up the confusion and instill a positive image for Marines, sergeants major called last year for banning tattoo sleeves and kicking out any Marines who have them. So far, that policy has not been put into place. A spokesman for Conway said there is no direct link between the planned clarification and the recommendation from the sergeants major last summer.
Conway said that almost every time he meets with Marines, he hears complaints that the policy isn't uniformly interpreted.
"We've got to fix that. That's unfair to the Marines. It's got to be one policy interpreted one way through the entire Marine Corps," he said.
Think twice about sleeves
While no existing policy prohibits sleeves, Conway said he tells Marines that ink on their lower arms limits their career progression, such as their ability to go on recruiting, drill instructor or Marine security guard duty.
"We need to get it right with regard to uniformity of determination. We can't have separate interpretations depending on where the Marine applies," he said.
The effort to clarify the issue comes as the Corps faces a recruiting challenge stemming from the planned addition of 22,000 Marines to the permanent force by 2011.
Conway has been adamant that service standards, including those for tattoos, will not be lowered in order to meet the goal.
"I don't see it affecting much recruiting because the standards are there for recruiting, and I don't think we're going to change those standards. The real question is what is acceptable on a Marine and what's not," Conway said.
Last year, the Army relaxed its regulations, allowing tattoos on the backs of the neck and hand. Before that change, tattoos that that would be visible while wearing the class A uniform were prohibited.
Around the same time, the Navy eased restrictions as well, but tightened up procedures for getting tattoo waivers. Sailors had been restricted to covering only 25 percent of their bodies with tattoos. That restriction was eliminated, as long as the tattoos are not visible when wearing a uniform. Tattoos are still banned on the neck, head, face, scalp and hands.