Navy says OK to more tats

Now hear this: The U.S. Navy has opened vast new stretches of skin to needles and ink.

Essentially erasing a previous rule that no more than 25 percent of a particular body part could be tattooed, the brass has now deemed virtually the entire chest, back, belly and behind to be acceptable canvasses for artistic decoration or personal expression. Gone, too, is the prohibition against wearing more than five tats.

About the only restrictions remaining are that such tattoos neither be visible through a white uniform nor racist, obscene, gang-related or otherwise “prejudicial to good order, discipline and morale,” according to an April ruling by the chief of naval operations.

Sailors _ for whom tattoos have been a matter of lifestyle and lore for more than 200 years _ also may continue to adorn their hands with the inked images, and sport them on arms and legs, so long as they are no larger than the size of the sailor’s hand, with fingers extended.

(Though it could not be officially confirmed, it appears that the anchors on Popeye’s bulging forearms would qualify.)

Still taboo, though, are tattoos on the neck, face or head, as is permanent eyeliner and other such cosmetic applications. This positions the Navy to the starboard of the Army, which last month decided to allow body art on the nape of the neck and endorsed “conservative” indelible makeup.

While critics said the Army loosened its rules to enlarge the pool of young people available to recruit, the service said it did so to adapt to changing trends. It cited a 2003 Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University survey that found about 28 percent of Americans under 25 say they have tattoos.

But the Navy said its surveys showed that head, neck and face tattoos aren’t very popular. Besides, said Robert Carroll, head of the Navy’s task force on uniforms, such decoration does not fit with the image the Navy wants to present.

“We are keeping our tattoos in line with who we are as sailors and as ambassadors for the United States,” said Carroll, a submariner who sports none. “The American people expect their military personnel to look professional.”

The new rules constitute a tweaking of the first broad, official Navy policy on tattoos, which was issued in 2003, Carroll said. The fondness of the MTV generation for tattoos and other body modifications was the spur for the maiden policy.

“Prior to 2003, it wasn’t an issue. We didn’t have a trend in society,” Carroll said.

But, almost from the Navy’s birth during the Revolutionary War, tattoos have been part of its culture. In fact, according to an expert on the history of tattoos, it was sailors who first brought the art of etching the skin with ink to the United States.

“I think you could make a persuasive case that we would not even have tattooing in the West without sailors,” said Vince Hemington, a writer who filmed a documentary on the history of tattooing and created the Web site

It all started in 1769, when the legendary British explorer Capt. James Cook and his crew visited Tahiti. There, and on nearby South Pacific islands, they found people adorned with elaborate designs on their skin. Some of the sailors got their own exotic tattoos, which were the talk of the docks back home. (Even today, New Zealand Maori-inspired facial tattoos are the rage in certain quarters, popularized in part by the one boxer Mike Tyson wears.)

Over time, tattoos served as a sort of postcard, marking the travels of the wearer and, in some cases, his status, according to Hemington and other tattoo historians.

Anchors _ such as Popeye’s pair _ signified the seaman had sailed the Atlantic Ocean. A shellback turtle marked a sail across the equator. Rope around the wrist identified a sailor as a deckhand, while a dragon showed that the wearer had spent time in China. A golden dragon was earned by crossing the international date line.

Other tattoos were meant to serve as talismans to protect superstitious sailors in their perilous occupations. Tattoos of the words “hold” on the knuckles of one hand, and “fast” on the knuckles of the other, were said to help the sailor hold tight to the riggings. A pig inked on the top of one foot and a rooster on the other were believed to protect the seaman from drowning.

The golden age of tattooed U.S. sailors came at the turn of the 20th century. During the Spanish-American War, an estimated 80 percent of Americans in the Navy boasted them. In 1943, the Navy barred sailors from having nudie tattoos, triggering a flood of seamen at tattoo parlors to alter the naked-girl depictions.

While battleships, roses and paeans to sweethearts and moms were common tattoo themes in the past, today it’s samurai warriors and fantasy figures, religious symbols, music groups and animals that sailors seem to prefer, Carroll said. No estimates exist for the current number of Navy personnel with tattoos.

Even though tattoos remain an indelible part of Navy culture, admirals and other officers don’t encourage newly minted sailors to get them. In fact, they caution the new swabbies to take a long-term view and think twice before committing themselves to what might not seem so attractive later in life.

Carroll said that temporary tattoos closely resembling the permanent kind are a good option to try first. “That way you can change your mind,” he said.

(Contact Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)