Air Force Policy on Tattoos, Body Art, and Body Piercings
Unauthorized (content). 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.
Any member obtaining unauthorized tattoos will be required to remove them at their own expense.
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).
Inappropriate (military image). Excessive tattoos/brands will not be exposed or visible (includes visible through the uniform) while in uniform. Excessive is defined as any tattoo/brands that exceed ¼ of the exposed body part and those above the collarbone and readily visible when wearing an open collar uniform.
Members will not be allowed to display excessive tattoos that would detract from an appropriate professional image while in uniform. Commanders will use the above guidelines in determining appropriate military image and acceptability of tattoos displayed by members in uniform. Air Force members with existing tattoos not meeting an acceptable military image should be required to:
- maintain complete coverage of the tattoos using current uniforms items (e.g. long-sleeved shirt/blouse, pants/slacks, dark hosiery, etc.) or
- volunteer to remove tattoos(s).
Members who receive tattoos/brands not meeting the standards after the effective date of this policy (1998) are required to initiate tattoos/brands removal upon notification by their Commander at their own expense (may not use Air Force Medical Centers for removal).
Members not complying with these requirements will be subject to disciplinary action for failure to comply with Air Force Standards and may be involuntarily separated.
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). EXCEPTION: 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. Earring should fit tightly without extending below the earlobe. (EXCEPTION: Connecting band on clip earrings.)
- Official duty: 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). EXCEPTION: 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. Earring should fit tightly without extending below the earlobe. (EXCEPTION: Connecting band on clip earrings)
- 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). EXCEPTION: Piercing of earlobes by women is 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 kept within sensible limits.
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 (EXAMPLE: 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).
Note: On Jan 03, the Air Force also announced a policy which prohibits body mutilation, such as split tongues.
Frequency 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.
Question: Why do we need a tattoo and body piercing policy?
Answer: The policy was created based on requests from commanders and first sergeants who wanted clearer standards and guidelines in the face of the growing popularity of body art and body piercing fads.
Question: Who created this policy?
Answer: The policy evolved over 19 months and included the use of a tiger team composed of first sergeants, commanders, social actions people and representatives from medical and legal offices, Recruiting Service, Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve Command. All Air Force major commands reviewed policy proposals, and the final version of the policy arrived at only after thorough discussion by senior leaders at the Air Staff.
Question: Who has the final say on the appropriateness of earrings, body piercing or branding?
Answer: Commanders and first sergeants are the first line of authority for making this determination. Body piercing (other than earrings) is quite 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.
Question: Does the body piercing policy apply to all areas of the military installation -- including recreation facilities (pools, ball fields, etc.) and living areas (dormitories, military family housing)?
Answer: Yes. 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.
Question: What happens to those people who had tattoos before this new policy came into effect, and who might now be in violation of the policy?
Answer: 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 in nature -- the tattoo must be removed at member expense. If a commander rules that a tattoo falls into the other category of "inappropriate," there are other options, to include using uniform items to cover part or all of the image(s).
Question: Is there a set timeframe to have a tattoo removed before being involuntarily separated?
Answer: 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 voluntarily remove, the commander can assist them in seeking medical support for the procedure. The timing of removal, in this case, will be driven primarily by the availability of medical facilities staffed and equipped for tattoo removals.
Question: Is the regulation retroactive, or will there be an exemption to exclude those who receive tattoos before the regulation was issued?
Answer: There are no so-called "grandfathering" provisions in the policy. It would not be practical from an enforcement standpoint: i.e., the Air Force could not realistically maintain different appearance standards at the same time. For instance, how could a supervisor with excessive tattoos tell a subordinate they can't engage in such practices? While the formal policy spelling out "unauthorized" tattoos is new, any behavior that tends to bring discredit to the Air Force has never been tolerated. Members who have exercised poor judgment by obtaining inflammatory images on their skin should not be surprised by this non-negotiable clause of the body art policy.
Question: If there are no exemptions, who is responsible for the cost of the removal?
Answer: Again, this depends on the particular circumstances and commander judgment. If the tattoo is unauthorized, based on content, the member will likely face the bill of removal alone. If the tattoo is more an issue of excessive, removal is the last resort and is essentially a voluntary action on the part of the member. In these cases, commanders will work with local military medical officials to determine how to support removals at no cost to the member.
Question: What are the differences in the piercing policy for women and men?
Answer: The only difference is the wear of earrings. Males may not wear earrings on duty whether in or out of uniform, nor can they wear them off duty on base. Females performing official duty in civilian attire are limited to the same wear criteria as for 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.
Question: Are social functions considered official duty concerning the wear of earrings for women?
Answer: Social functions, such as squadron picnics, Christmas parties or mixers, are not considered an official duty. Official duty status includes jobs that require the wear of civilian attire, participation in sporting events, traveling in civilian attire on temporary duty orders or when representing the Air Force at civilian functions.
Question: What is considered extreme or excessive earring wear for women in civilian clothes on base during their off-duty time?
Answer: Commanders and first sergeants would make the final determination as to what is extreme or excessive, but considerations would focus on encouraging a positive image among Air Force members at all times.
Above Information Derived from AFI 36-2903 and the Air Force News Service