Sunday, December 18, 2011

Tattoos, Meanings, and the Military

           Tattoos in everyday society are becoming more mainstream but tattoos in the military are also a topic of discussion which involves a long history as well as disapproval. Back then, men in the navy traveled far away to China and Japan to get tattooed. These men brought tattooing back to the states and that is why most of the early tattooing pioneers were mainly sailors (Sailor Jerry Colins). When talking about tattoos, there are many iconic tattoo images for each branch of the military such as: the bulldog for the marines, chicken and pig tattoos on the feet for men in the navy, and those individuals in the Air Force generally had wings or plane tattoos. I’ll be going into detail about different branches of the military, their rules and regulations about tattooing, and also a brief history of tattooing in the early days.
The navy introduced tattoos to the general US culture in the early 1990s, these tattoos were hand poked into the skin and were usually acquired in Asia. The tattoos that they would get were usually symbols for protection; the tattoos of chicken and pigs on the foot of a sailor were somewhat of a superstition because when a ship sank the only things that would be floating were the chicken and pig crates, so that is where that started. The navy has many different tattoos for certain landmarks which have fun and interesting meanings to them such as the following:
·         A black pearl earring for survivors of a sinking ship.
·         Golden earrings were used as a means of ensuring they were buried properly should they die at sea or in a foreign port. 

·        Anchor tattoo for sailing the Atlantic or the anchor usually noted that the sailor was in the merchant marine.
·         In modern times a brass earring denoted a survivor of a ship sinking.
·         One left ear piercing for crossing each of the Equator, Arctic Circle, and Antarctic Circle.
·         Earrings were thought to keep spirits from entering through the ear, but that's not a purely sailor thing.
·         A sparrow for every 5000 thousand nautical miles traveled.
·         A sailor would get a swallow tattoo for every 5000 miles he had sailed or because swallows will always find its way home.

·         The pig and the rooster are tattooed on either the calves or the top of the feet, to prevent a sailor from drowning. These animals were originally carried on most ships in wooden crates. When a ship goes down these crates would float and then catch currents and wash ashore with the other debris from the ship, making the pigs and roosters often the only souls to survive a shipwreck.
Some other interpretation of the pig and rooster tattoo is:
·         A tattoo of a pig on the left knee and a rooster (cock) on the right foot signified "Pig on the knee, safety at sea. A cock on the right, never lose a fight."
·         Tattoos of pigs and chickens were to make sure they always had their ham and eggs so that they never go hungry.

·         A turtle standing on its back legs (shellback) for crossing the equator and being initiated into King Neptune’s Court.
·         Crossed anchors on the web between the thumb and index finger for a boson’s mate.
·         Royal Navy tattoos of palm trees for the Mediterranean cruises in WWII.
·         Many US sailors have a palm tree or hula girl from Hawaii.
·         Hold Fast across the knuckles to keep them from falling overboard or dropping a line.
·         Full rigged ship for sailing around Cape Horn.
·         Dragon for crossing the International Date Line or serving in China.
·         Rope around the wrist for being a dockhand.
·         Two stars to ensure always knowing the way.
·         Guns or crossed cannon for military naval service.
·         Harpoons for the fishing fleet.
·         Crosses on the soles of one's feet to ward off hungry sharks. 
·         A nautical star, or compass rose was to always find your way home.
·         A dagger through a rose signified a willingness to fight and kill even something as fragile as a rose.
·         Many sailors also got pornographic images so that they would always have them with them.
There are many more different tattoos for different branches in the military but that would take too long to list! But now we’ll go into the rules of having tattoos in the U.S. Army of the military.

Tattoos weren’t always acceptable in the military so soldiers would get them in inconspicuous places where they weren’t easily seen. But now with more widespread acceptance of tattoos, the military has become a bit more lenient about tattoos. It used to be that you could not have any visible tattoos when wearing your uniform which meant that tattoos on the forearms were a no no. But even now, tattoos on the hands and back of the neck are acceptable as long as they were not “extremist, indecent, sexist, or racist” which was found under Army Regulation 670-1, CHAPTER 1-8E (1)  in the U.S. Army uniform policy site. This change that allowed tattooed individuals to join the army was due to the fact that Army officials had become aware of the growing number of people that had tattoos. If a soldier had gotten a tattoo that did not comply with the army regulations, the command will counsel the soldier on medical options but cannot force them to have the tattoo removed. Even though that is the case, if the soldier does not remove the tattoo, they will be discharged from the army.
      Learning about the different types of meaning for certain tattoos the armed forces receive is one thing but actually knowing the rules and regulations for the different lines of services is another. The army may allow their soldiers to get tattoos as long as it is not distracting or anything out of their regulations but the U.S. Coast Guards have a “limitation on the size of a tattoo in percentages of a given area that will not exceed 25 percent of the space between wrist and elbow, knee and ankle, but it does not allow tattoos on the hands or neck.” In other words, if you have tattoos or decide to get some in the future and want to join the Army, Navy, Air Force, or any other military service, do some research on their uniform regulations because it will help you in deciding which type of military service and tattoo is best for you.


  1. These men brought tattooing back to the states and that is why most of the early tattooing pioneers were mainly sailors (Sailor Jerry Colins). When talking about tattoos, compass tattoo meaning

  2. Awesome information.. if you have a tattoo I'd love to help you tell the story!! Marta