Two days before Thanksgiving, 21-year-old Killeen resident Sean Tynes sat in a dentist-like chair watching TV as he waited for a tattoo artist at Calaveras Tattoo Studio on Fort Hood Street.
“It’s the only place I come to,” said Tynes, a soldier in the Army Reserves who returned from a deployment to southwest Asia a few months ago. He came in for another session to work on his sleeve tattoo, a collage of tributes to his grandmother, fallen soldiers and his Christian beliefs.
“To me, tattoos are a big conversation starter. They tell stories,” he said.
Moreover, tattoos can also help heal, or at least deal with tragic events of the past, Tynes said.
“It’s a way to express what you’ve done; to get it off your chest and tell your story,” he said.
A story about tattoos
There’s not exactly a war going on between the Army and tattoos — which are permitted — but there is a bit of a battle.
In October, Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond Chandler gave a speech at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual convention in Washington, D.C. He spoke on a number of topics, including indecent tattoos — which are not permitted in the Army.
In one example, the Army’s top enlisted man said he was visiting a division headquarters and a saw a noncommissioned officer with the words “F--- You” tattooed on his neck, according to a Nov. 5 Army Times article. “What troubles me is that no one pulled this sergeant aside and said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to get rid of that,’” Chandler said.
It’s a problem that jeopardizes the reputation and professionalism of both individual soldiers and the Army as a whole, according to Chandler, who is on a mission to make sure soldiers are following the policy and add some beef to it.
According to Army Regulation 670-1, which governs personal appearance, body ink on soldiers is fine as long as the tattoos are not “on the head, face and neck above the Class A uniform collar.” Tattoos deemed as extremist, indecent, sexist or racist are not allowed anywhere on the body. Soldiers who refuse to remove inappropriate tattoos can be discharged.
That might seem clear enough, but scratch the surface, and one will find that the relationship of the Army and tattoos is a little ink-stained.
Art of confusion
Rumors persist that the Army is looking to halt any tattoos that can be seen in the physical training uniform, which would prevent ink below the knee or elbow. Years ago, soldiers swapped tales that tattooing of any kind was not allowed; that it was a form of “defacing government property.”
The culture of tattoos in society has changed over the years. In the 1990s, tattoos spread from the stereotypical prison inmates and sailors to the masses, including college students, 20-somethings and others. Today, even school teachers have tattoos. Many soldiers do, as well.
At King Pin Tattoo Studio in Harker Heights, manager Mike Lang, 32, said there is confusion over what is acceptable in the Army.
“One minute, they say soldiers can’t get their hands and necks tattooed, and another minute, they’ll say they can get their hands and necks tattooed,” Lang said.
Part of that seesaw action has to do with the Army’s ever-evolving missions and needs. During “The Surge” years in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army waived some policies to allow for more recruits — even those with tattooed hands or necks — to sign up, according to Lance M. Bacon, a senior writer for the Army Times, who routinely writes on Army policy changes.
As the Army is trimming down, there is now a push spearheaded by the sergeant major of Army to revert back to old policies, and improve on them. Earlier this month, Chandler presented Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno with a list of recommended changes to the Army’s appearance policy. Included in those proposed changes:
- Tattoos will not be visible above the neck line when wearing the physical fitness uniform.
- Tattoos will not extend past the wrist line and will not be visible on the hands.
- Sleeve tattoos will not be allowed (They may be grandfathered in).
Odierno is expected to sign off on the new appearance policy — which also includes no visible piercings, no dental ornamentation and requires soldiers to be clean shaven both on and off duty — in about month. However, he may choose to omit or change portions, and he could deny the proposals altogether.
Chandler said the new rules are neither part of a drawdown nor a tool of attrition, according to the Army Times. Rather, the effort is a means to add professionalism and uniformity within the Army.
“You chose to join the Army,” Chandler said in the Times article. “The Army didn’t choose you.”
Rise of ink
The effort to put new limits on tattoos may not be a smooth path. With the Army waiving policies in the past, coupled with a huge desire in soldiers to remember fallen comrades in ink, tattoos in the Army are perhaps more popular now than ever before.
In Killeen alone, there are more than 20 licensed tattoo parlors, and Harker Heights has hosted a tattoo convention for the past two years.
A decade ago, soldiers were getting a lot of tribal-art tattoos, along with butterflies and the typical skull-and-crossbones, said T.J. Barksdale, 43, an Army veteran and tattoo artist at Calaveras Tattoo Studio.
However, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and the experiences troops have faced during those deployments — have fueled soldiers’ desires to get remembrance tattoos.
Barksdale said many soldiers come in to the shop and say: “My buddy was just here yesterday, and now he’s gone. I’ve got to get something to remember him.”
It’s not a trend unique to the military; many tattoos these days are done as a way to remember a relative, friend or something substantial that happened in a person’s life. For soldiers, however, many tattoos are in some way related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The main one is the soldier’s memorial,” said Barksdale, describing the boots, rifle and helmet commonly seen at memorials for fallen soldiers. Other tattoos include Army unit insignias, dog tags, names of deployment destinations with dates and similar art.
Other popular picks with soldiers: Saint Michael, guardian angels and pin-up girls, said Mike Rios, 35, a tattoo artist at Calaveras.
“I think trends and tattoos go up and down,” he said, adding the hardships of war have definitely had an effect on soldiers and body ink.
While the sergeant major of the Army is focused on erasing vulgar tattoos, such designs are rare, according to industry officials.
At King Pin Tattoo Studio, Lang said his artists have guidelines when it comes to questionable material.
“We don’t ever do anything that’s racist, like (swastikas),” said Lang, who also manages Tiki Tattoos in Killeen.
It’s rare when a racist tattoo is even requested these days, Lang said, adding his staff will kick out customers who make such a request.
But not all tattoo studios in the area are as responsible.
“A good portion are shoddy,” said Lang, adding some soldiers will come in to King Pin or Tiki Tattoos requesting an artist fix or cover up a tattoo that was done poorly.
Just a few years ago, Killeen didn’t have a very good reputation for tattoo art, Barksdale said. “A lot of soldiers got upset with the shops in Killeen,” he said, adding many troops would opt to drive to Austin rather than spend money on ink locally.
And while some “shoddy” studios still operate in this area, the local studios have picked up their game.
“We’re artists in some form,” said Barksdale, a member of the Killeen Art Guild. A decent tattoo artist needs to understand color theory, fit, flow and other traditional art themes, he added.
At Fort Hood, III Corps commander Lt. Gen. Donald M. Campbell Jr. said he applauds the efforts of the sergeant major of the Army to improve discipline and professionalism.
That said, Campbell added he didn’t have a problem with tattoos as long as they aren’t visible when wearing the class A dress uniform and don’t degrade the soldier or the Army.
“My son has tattoos, and other people I know have tattoos,” he said.
While policies concerning body ink may be tweaked time and time again, tattoos in the Army may turn out to be a permanent thing.