A tattoo of the Statue of Liberty on a soldier’s left shoulder caught my eye.
He told me it represented a family tradition.
“My grandfather got this tattoo when he served in World War II; my father copied it when he served in Vietnam,” he said, “and I wear it here in Iraq.”
Tattoos among military personnel are a strong presence in society today, and they are forms of self-expression and commemorations of service.
The History of Tattoos
The practice of tattooing traces back to 4000 BC. Many cultural anthropologists believe that body markings span numerous cultures in showing the influences of religion, magic, social status, personal history, and military experience.
“Tattoos and other permanent forms of body modification have been paramount in establishing the status and reputation of warriors for hundreds, if not thousands, of years,” tattoo anthropologist Lars Krutak, the host of the Discovery Channel’s Tattoo Hunter, said in 2014.
The inking of one’s skin stems from the Roman and Greek armies, the tribal warriors of the British Isles, the Maori tribes of New Zealand, and numerous other cultures. In most cases, tattoos represented a rite of passage or a sense of unity.
The rise of Christianity in the 8th century, however, quickly dried up the ink of tattooing in much of the Western World when Pope Hadrian I outlawed the practice in 787 AD.
Inking Makes a Resurgence
At the height of British exploration in the 18th century, Captain James Cook’s voyages to Tahiti renewed the practice of body marking when many of his sailors returned with permanent reminders of their travels or sea related superstitions.
Tattooing – the word comes from the Polynesian practice of “ta tau,” which means “to write,” – eventually spread to North America.
During the American Revolution, colonial sailors wore military tattoos as identification to avoid being illegally impressed into the British Navy.
In the 19th century, British commander Frederick Roberts encouraged his troops to be tattooed. “Every officer in the British army should be tattooed with his regimental crest,” he said.
His sentiments found a home in the United States.
American Military Tattoos
Martin Hildebrandt opened the first tattoo shop in 1846 in New York City. During the Civil War (1861-1865), he traveled the country tattooing soldiers.
“Every regiment had its tattooers, with outfits of needles and India ink,” wrote Wilbur F. Hinman in his 1925 novel, Corporal Si Klegg and His Pard.
“Military men not infrequently mark themselves with something which shows allegiance to their profession,” he added.
In 1891, New York skin artist Samuel O’Reilly invented the first electric tattoo gun, and the experience of being inked became less painful and faster.
Among the thousands to get a tattoo, Thomas Edison, President Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill did.
By the end of World War I, however, tattooing had a “love it or hate” it reputation.
“One is complete fascination, a feeling that here is the ultimate stud …. The other is complete revulsion; the tattoo represents the epitome of sleaze …,” wrote Samuel M. Steward in his 1965 book Bad Boys and Tough Tattoos.
Military tattoos, however, remained popular with the many service members who served in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Society is changing its views of tattoos, and we have to change along with that,” former Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno told the Military News in 2015.
Military Tattoos Today
Tattooing is one of the fastest growing retail businesses in the United States; the fastest growing demographic group looking to be inked are middle-class suburban women.
Generally there two classes of tattoo businesses to choose from.
The first is the “tattoo parlor” that promotes an urban sense of outlaw and advertises itself with garish signage and sometimes questionable surroundings.
The second is the “tattoo art studio” hosting the features of a high end beauty establishment with the obligatory “by appointment only” services.
As to the five branches of the military, they all have policies governing the types and placement of tattoos. Those considering enlistment need to be aware of these requirements.
The choice to tattoo is both personal and profound; make it wisely.
For more, read about facial hair in the military and if it could be coming back.