Marines will have more flexibility under the service's upcoming updates to its tattoo policy, but they still will not be allowed to get sleeve tattoos, said Commandant Gen. Robert Neller.

Neller said he hopes the updated tattoo policy will be released within 30 days. It will seek to consolidate existing tattoo guidance in one document and to clarify which tattoos are allowed.

"Having talked to them, I don't think most Marines understand what the policy is," Neller told Marine Corps Times on Wednesday.  "I don't think they understand what they can do. They just know they can't get a sleeve."

Marines still won't be able to get sleeve tattoos — which typically cover the arm from shoulder to wrist — under the latest updates to the tattoo policy, but they will have some flexibility on what is an acceptable tattoo, said Neller, who declined to get into specifics of the changes until the updates are released.

"We're actually going to try to provide pictures to clarify what we mean when we say 'a quarter of a body part,' or whatever it is," he said.

The Army updated its tattoo policy in April, stripping limits on the size or number of tattoos soldiers can have. Leaders said the more lenient rules were based on input from soldiers.

"Society is changing its view of tattoos, and we have to change along with that," then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said at the time. "It makes sense. Soldiers have grown up in an era when tattoos are much more acceptable and we have to change along with that."

Neller was initially surprised at how often the topic of tattoos came up when he talked with Marines, he said. Most of the questions he has received have come from Marines who want to get a sleeve tattoo.

"I ask them why," he said. "They go, 'Because I want to memorialize a friend.' I respect that. Marines don't ask for much, so when you can, you want to give them something."

But the Marine Corps isn't "But, I said: ‘Look. We’re not in a rock and roll band," he added.

"We're Marines," Neller said. "We have a brand. People expect a certain thing from us and right now, if you're in PT uniform, you can be completely tatted up under your PT uniform. That's not enough? You can still get certain size tattoos on your arms and your legs. How much do you want?"

Since he first started fielding questions on the Marine Corps' tattoo policy, Neller has studied up on the issue, "So now I understand it pretty well," he said.

The latest tattoo guidance will explain how getting tattoos will affect Marines' chances of getting a special duty assignment and becoming warrant officers and commissioned officers, Neller said. The issue is bigger than the Marine Corps because local, state and federal law enforcement agencies that Marines may want to join have strict rules on what tattoos are permissible, he said.

While he knows that tattoos are an important issue for Marines, Neller wants he force to concentrate on its mission, he said.

"I'm trying to keep everybody focused on what's important, which is getting ready to be trained and ready to go fight if we have to go fight," Neller said.

Jeff Schogol covers Marine Corps leadership, gender integration, aviation, and Pacific-based Marines for Marine Corps Times. He can be reached at

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