Although tattoos have now grown into a widespread phenomenon, accessible and acceptable to civilians in many walks of life, military tattoos have remained a distinct type, with their own standards and meanings.
From navy to air force, and all the soldiers in-between, tattoos are a way of identifying as part of a unit, marking important events or even as a way of expressing support, among non-military personnel.
But why did the tradition of body art become so closely identified with the armed forces? And how do these military tattoos differ from others?
The Roman Age
Some have traced the origins of these tattoos to Roman times, when the legionnaires of the Empire used to find themselves stationed in far off lands for long spells. The natives of these places, the Goths or Picts, were often heavily tattooed, and the soldiers would often find themselves following suit.
This served many purposes, from practical camouflage and intimidation to providing an exotic souvenir of these mysterious places. Indeed, it was returning soldiers and sailors from new lands who not only popularised tattoos in their own ranks, but spread this new fashion into society as well. This happened in Britain, with the return of Captain Cook and his men in the 1700s.
The United States
Since the Navy introduced tattoos into general US culture in the early 1900s, they have become a long tradition in this branch of the armed forces. Compared to others, they have the highest propensity towards it. Naval tattoos often feature an anchor or sailor’s cap, and are placed on the wearer’s upper arm.
But tattoos were present in American military before this time, as shown during the Civil War of the 1800s wherein soldiers on both the Union and Confederate sides were inked to show their allegiance.
The Present Day
Nowadays, tattoos are seen throughout the major branches of service in the US. In addition to the afore-mentioned naval designs, there are army tattoos, which can often feature patriotic imagery such as an eagle or the American flag, or replicas of patches and medals that would be worn on the uniform. For the individual, these can symbolise particular conflicts or honour the memories of fallen soldiers.
The marines, widely considered to be the toughest of servicemen, often sport tattoos, which can vary wildly in design. Bulldogs are popular, as they are thought to share these qualities of hard-wearing tenacity. At the opposite end, the Air Force, generally the least tattoo-prone of the services, have tattoos featuring wings or, of course, planes.
Uniform and presentation remain important in the military, so there are often regulations forbidding tattoos that are always visible, such as on the face or neck. However, they remain permitted and recognised as a traditional show of unity and dedication to service, and those served with.