Arm with sailboat tattoo and hand with rose tattoo holding pencil

Arm with sailboat tattoo and hand with rose tattoo holding pencil ()

For those of us living in a military community, tattoos are a common sight. They are used to commemorate service, to represent patriotism, to honor a fellow service member or remember family. Some people decorate their body with art from their favorite fandom, sports team or memory. Every tattoo has its own story but tattoos themselves have a long history in the military community. The tradition of tattooing and body marking goes back in history to at least 4000 B.C., as seen on ancient mummies. The connection between tattoos and warriors, or those defending their home, may be just as old. In ancient Rome, soldiers were tattooed with identifying information to show membership to a certain group or unit. Societies around the world have had special tattoo designs for their warriors such as the blue patterns used by the Picts of Scotland and the black patterns created by the Maori of New Zealand. In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church, which is not known for allowing body art, encouraged Crusader knights who tattooed the Holy Cross on their bodies.

The tradition of American military tattoos begins with the Navy. Exposure to Polynesian tattoos in the 1700s may have led to an explosion of tattooing among British, and then American, sailors. The word “tattoo” is Polynesian and entered the English language following Captain Cook’s voyages in the South Pacific. Sailors used tattoos to show their achievements: an anchor meant he had crossed the Atlantic Ocean, a turtle indicated an equator crossing, and a ship meant he had sailed around Cape Horn. Tattoos were also used as talismans against superstition, and many of these motifs are still used by sailors today.

During the Revolutionary War, a sailor’s tattoos were listed officially on their protection papers, which helped identify them as American if they were being pressed into the British Royal Navy. By the time of the Civil War a hundred years later, tattooing had spread to the Army. Each regiment was known to have at least one guy who could tattoo, with flags and weapons being popular. Tattoo artist Martin Hildebrandt, who opened the first tattoo shop in the United States in 1846, also traveled around the country tattooing soldiers.

In the U.S., tattooing was synonymous with sailors and soldiers until the 20th century when it became popular with countercultural groups like gangs and circus sideshows. This changed the view of body art into one associated with deviant behavior and the popularity of tattoos waned, even amongst the military. During the World Wars, official policy required tattoos to be covered by the uniform. Finally, in the 1970’s body art become acceptable in the mainstream culture and military tattooing also saw a resurgence with art that reflected ones’ field of service, experiences, and patriotism. Recently, tattoos have also been used as therapy for service members handling post-traumatic stress or chronic pain.

The Most Popular Military Tattoos

Flags, units, branch logos, dog tags, rank insignia, Maltese crosses, and deployment-related tattoos are common amongst all of the branches. But some motifs are held tightly within the culture and superstitions of certain military branches and units.

Navy: Anchors, swallows, nautical stars, compasses, ships, rope, dragons, turtles and pin-up girls.

Army: Camouflage, berets, field crosses and tanks.

Air Force: Jets, pilot wings, the Air Force logo, jolly green feet.

Marines: Bulldogs, “Semper Fi,” Crash Fire Rescue insignia, “USMC.”

Coast Guard: “USCG”, anchors, cutters, life preservers, “Semper Peratus,”helicopters.

The Space Force hasn’t existed long enough for popular tattoos to emerge as iconic amongst its members, but we’ll see what develops in the future.

author picture
Tamala Malerk is a writer and editor with Stars and Stripes Europe. She has been with SSE since April 2022 writing articles all about travel, lifestyle, community news, military life and more. In May 2022, she earned her Ph.D. in History and promises it is much more relevant to this job than one might think.

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