In the Air Force, as of 2017, tattoos on the chest, back, arms and legs that still meet the authorized standard are not restricted by the “25 percent” rule. The now-defunct 25% rule indicated that an Airman could have 25% of the body area covered by tattoos if it wasn't visible when wearing the uniform. However, tattoos, brands or body markings on the head, neck, face, tongue, lips and/or scalp remain prohibited. Hand tattoos are limited to a single-band ring tattoo on one finger of one hand.
Like other branches of the military, the Air Force is evolving with the culture. More than 20% of Air Force applicants had tattoos that required review each year. Now the policy is easier to implement with a smaller gray area for interpretation by the reviewers.
Tattoos/Brands anywhere on the body that are obscene, advocate sexual, racial, ethnic, or religious discrimination are prohibited in and out of uniform. Tattoos/brands that are prejudicial to good order and discipline or of a nature that tends to bring discredit upon the Air Force are prohibited in and out of uniform.
Using uniform items to cover unauthorized tattoos is not an option. Members failing to remove unauthorized tattoos in a timely manner will be subject to involuntary separation, or punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).
Any member obtaining unauthorized tattoos will be required to remove them at their own expense.
Body Piercing While in Uniform
Members are prohibited from attaching, affixing or displaying objects, articles, jewelry, or ornamentation to or through the ear, nose, tongue, or any exposed body part (includes visible through the uniform).
The exception to this is that women are authorized to wear one small spherical, conservative, diamond, gold, white pearl, or silver pierced, or clip earring per earlobe and the earring worn in each earlobe must match. The earring should fit tightly without extending below the earlobe—excepting the connecting band on clip earrings.
Piercing While Not in Uniform
Members are prohibited from attaching, affixing or displaying objects, articles, jewelry or ornamentation to or through the ear, nose, tongue, or any exposed body part (includes visible through clothing).
There is an exception; women are authorized to wear one small spherical, conservative, diamond, gold, white pearl, silver pierced, or clip earring per earlobe and the earring worn in each earlobe must match. Earrings should fit tightly without extending below the earlobe. If the earring is a clip, the band can show.
Off Duty on a Military Installation
Members are prohibited from attaching, affixing or displaying objects, articles, jewelry or ornamentation to or through the ear, nose, tongue, or any exposed body part (includes visible through clothing). Pierced earlobes on women are allowed but should not be extreme or excessive.
The type and style of earrings worn by women on a military installation should be conservative and within sensible limits.
Commanders Can Issue Additional Guidance
There may be situations where the commander can restrict the wear of non-visible body ornaments. Those situations would include any body ornamentation that interferes with the performance of the member’s military duties.
The factors to be evaluated in making this determination include, but are not limited to: impairs the safe and effective operation of weapons, military equipment, or machinery; poses a health or safety hazard to the wearer or others; or interferes with the proper wear of special or protective clothing or equipment (helmets, flack jackets, flight suits, camouflaged uniforms, gas masks, wet suits, and crash rescue equipment).
Installation or higher commanders may impose more restrictive standards for tattoos and body ornaments, on or off duty, in those locations where the Air Force-wide standards may not be adequate to address cultural sensitivities (e.g., overseas) or mission requirements (e.g., basic training environments).
The Air Force has implemented a policy which prohibits body mutilation, such as split tongues.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some of the most commonly asked questions and answers from the experts concerning the recent revision to Air Force Instruction 36-2903 on body piercing and tattoos.
Why Is a Policy Needed?
The policy was created based on requests from commanders and first sergeants who wanted more precise standards and guidelines in the face of the growing popularity of body art and body piercing fads.
Who Has the Final Say on Appropriateness?
Commanders and first sergeants are the first line of authority for making this determination. Body piercing (other than earrings) is relatively straightforward—don't display it while in uniform, while performing official duty in civilian attire or on a military installation at any time. Tattoos are a bit more subjective, but this policy provides commanders guidelines to make the calls.
Does the Piercing Policy Apply to All Areas of the Military Installation?
It does, but it is also important to note the policy only addresses personal appearance issues while on the installation.
Although the Air Force encourages airmen to maintain an appropriate military image at all times, piercing practices off base, such as earring wear by males, are not intended to be addressed by this policy.
Is There a Grandfathering Period?
It's expected that most tattoos fall within acceptable guidelines. Questionable tattoos will be considered on a case-by-case basis between the airmen and their commander. If a tattoo is "unauthorized"—racist, sexist or otherwise discriminatory—the tattoo must be removed at member expense.
If a commander rules that a tattoo falls into the other category of "inappropriate," another option includes using uniform items to cover part or all of the image(s).
Is There a Timeframe to Have a Tattoo Removed?
There is not a set timeframe for removal. The commander determines the sense of urgency, depending on the nature of the tattoo. For instance, if airmen have inappropriate tattoos they would like to remove voluntarily, the commander can assist them in seeking medical support for the procedure.
The timing of tattoo removal, in this case, will be driven primarily by the availability of medical facilities staffed and equipped for tattoo removals.
What Are the Differences in the Piercing Policy for Women and Men?
The only difference is the wear of earrings. Males may not wear earrings on duty, whether in or out of uniform. They also cannot wear them off duty on base.
Females performing official duty in civilian attire are limited to the same wear criteria when in uniform: i.e., a single small spherical, conservative, diamond, gold, white pearl, or silver pierced or clip earring per earlobe. The earrings must match and should fit tightly without extending below the earlobe.
Above Information Derived from AFI 36-2903 and the Air Force News Service