Coast Guard Tweaks Tattoo Policy to Allow Bigger Designs on Hands, Ink Behind Both Ears

National Tattoo Day at the Coast Guard Academy
Cadet 2nd Class Kyra Lay poses for a photograph with her tattoos in celebration of National Tattoo Day at the Coast Guard Academy, New London, CT, July 14, 2023. (Matt Thieme/U.S. Coast Guard)

Coast Guard members can now have larger tattoos on their hands and one behind each ear under a new policy update, the service announced Tuesday.

The new policy allows for single tattoos on the back of both hands up to 2 ½ inches in any direction, according to a Coast Guard-wide message. The previous limit was up to 1 inch on both hands, between the knuckle closest to the wrist and the wrist bones.

In addition, Coasties can opt to have a single tattoo behind each ear of up to 1 inch, not to extend into the hairline or below the bottom of the ear. Previously, they were allowed just one behind one ear.

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Officials said the change is "in line with the Coast Guard's goal to be an employer of choice" and also reduce barriers for those thinking about joining the service.

The service continues to struggle with recruiting, not having made its enlistment goals since 2020. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Linda Fagan told Congress in mid-2023 that the service was short 3,500 members and, in its fiscal 2025 budget, it announced plans to reduce the number of positions by 277 to reflect the challenges of filling the ranks.

In the past year, the service has instituted a number of programs to increase recruiting and maintain retention, including opening new recruiting centers; expanding Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps units in high schools; providing signing bonuses for certain specialties; and increasing opportunities for professionals to join the service at higher ranks, known as lateral entry.

"The Coast Guard has made significant efforts to increase recruiting capacity and improve retention throughout the force and expects to continue to make strides in recruiting and retention," officials wrote in their fiscal 2025 budget justification documents to Congress.

The service last updated its tattoo policy in 2021 to include a single tattoo behind the ear and tattoos on fingers. In addition to the new policy allowing hand tattoos, Coast Guard members can have one finger tattoo between their first knuckle and fingertip and they can have ring tattoos.

The service still does not allow any tattoo that is visible above a standard crew neck T-shirt or the top collar edge of the back of the tropical blue uniform shirt.

They also may not carry any messages that represent "racism, discrimination, indecency, extremist or supremacist philosophies, lawlessness, violence, or have sexually explicit content," according to the service.

In a press release, Kathy Murray, a senior writer and public affairs specialist for the Coast Guard, said the bottom line is that the service "understands that visible tattoos have become mainstream."

"These updates to our tattoo policy ensure the uniformed workforce presents a sharp and professional military appearance to the public while allowing for individual creativity and expression through authorized body art that is consistent with the Coast Guard's core values" Murray said.

The Coast Guard's exact policies and descriptions on allowable tattoos can be found in COMDTINST 1000.1F Tattoo, Branding, Body Piercing, and Mutilation Standards.

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