The Air Force and Space Force are now allowing tattoos on the neck and hands, a policy change aimed at bringing younger talent into the ranks as the Air Force recovers from one of its toughest recruiting years in recent history. 

Under the new policy, airmen and Guardians are allowed to have one tattoo on each hand and one tattoo on the back of the neck; they cannot exceed one inch or portray obscene, racist or violent symbols. Previously, the services allowed only ring tattoos limited to a single band. 

“The Department of the Air Force is committed to recruiting talented and qualified individuals, while retaining the experienced Airmen and Guardians currently serving,” it said in a Wednesday press release. “One of the leading barriers currently being tackled is the increased prevalence of hand and neck tattoos among America’s youth.”

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The policy revision comes as the number of people with tattoos has steadily grown during the last decade, while interest and eligibility for young Americans to join the ranks have dwindled. 

A 2019 Ipsos poll showed that more Americans have tattoos than in early 2012, detailing that 30% of Americans have at least one tattoo, up from 21% in 2012.

Tattoos have hardly been the only hindrance to recruiting. Military.com reported last year that a Pentagon study showed that 77% of young Americans would not qualify for military service without a waiver due to being overweight, using drugs, or having mental and physical health problems.

The struggle to find new recruits from that small pool was felt by the Air Force last year. Maj. Gen. Ed Thomas, the commander of the Air Force Recruiting Service, told reporters that the service was behind recruiting targets by between 1,500 to 2,000 airmen for each component of the reserve and Guard.

While the service managed to meet its active-duty goals last year, Thomas said that the branch had already dipped into its bank of recruits who have delayed entry into the service. Typically, the Air Force starts out with 25% of its recruits ready to begin training by the start of the year — in part due to the delayed-entry program — but that number has dwindled to 10% for the start of fiscal 2023.

Thomas signaled in the press release that there will still be recruiting challenges in 2023.

“While we met our active-duty recruiting goals last year, record-low unemployment rates and steadily declining familiarity with the U.S. military today leaves us uncertain whether we can achieve our goals this year,” he said in the release. “We are starting to see some positive results of our training program, policy changes and our enhanced marketing efforts, but military recruiting will remain a long-term challenge.”

The Space Force began allowing neck tattoos last May, under a new policy, but it did not allow hand tattoos, only ring tattoos of a certain size. The Department of the Air Force policy released Wednesday now allows for them.

The location of a permissible neck tattoo is carefully outlined in the new guidance.

“The neck tattoo will only be placed behind a vertical line at the opening of the ear orifice around the back to a vertical line at the opening of the other ear orifice and includes behind the ear,” the release said.

All hand, arm, leg, neck and ring tattoos can be visible while in any uniform combination, according to the press release, but chest and back tattoos can’t be seen through any uniform combination or while wearing an open collar uniform.

The Air Force and Space Force do not allow “head, face, tongue, lips, eyes, and scalp” tattoos and have also banned ink that is “obscene, commonly associated with gangs, extremist, and/or supremacist organizations, or that advocate sexual, racial, ethnic, or religious discrimination,” according to the policy.

— Thomas Novelly can be reached at thomas.novelly@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.

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