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Navy relaxes tattoo policy to recruit more millennials

Bank Street Tattoo Company owner and Navy Petty Officer First Class Mike Spittler. Spittler already has a nautical scene with Poseidon the God of the sea tattooed on his arm.
American Homefront/Sophie McKibben
Bank Street Tattoo Company owner and Navy Petty Officer First Class Mike Spittler. Spittler already has a nautical scene with Poseidon the God of the sea tattooed on his arm.

Effective this month, tattoo enthusiasts who serve in the U.S. Navy can ink a lot more of their body.

The Navy's latest policy change is an effort to remain attractive to millennials who may be excluded from serving due to the size of their body artwork.

That was apparent when the USS Toledo pulled into Connecticut's naval base in New London last week and tattoo artist Adam Hillyer’s phone started ringing. 

After spending weeks at sea there’s a tradition that sailors add a new tattoo to their collection. “They do generally gravitate towards stuff that can be done in one sitting,” Hillyer said. But not everyone; some sailors like body art that makes a bigger statement. 

In the chair today is Navy Petty Officer First Class Mike Spittler. Spittler already has a nautical scene with Poseidon, the god of the sea, tattooed on his right arm from his shoulder to his wrist.

Today Hillyer is shading in an ornate caricature of a fortune teller on Spittler's left arm. The piece is large enough that the fortune teller has her own tattoos.

“It’s a black and grey piece but her tattoos are blue so they stand out on her,” Spittler said. “At some point you get so tattooed your tattoos get tattoos.”

Tattoos are such a big part of Spittler’s lifestyle that he’s not just a client here, he actually owns this place, which he balances with his shore duty in the Navy.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Artist Adam Hillyer tattoos a large piece on Navy Petty Officer First Mike Spittler. Spittler owns this shop and tattoos here as well.", "fid": "126015", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201605/DSC_0031.jpg", "attribution": "Credit American Homefront/Sophie McKibben"}]]The Navy’s policy change allows Spittler and other sailors to get more tattoos and larger ones. Tattoos can now extend below the elbow and knee. And for the first time sailors can have tattoos up to an inch on their necks

At the Office of Navy Personnel Lieutenant Commander Nate Christensen said the Pentagon’s commitment to professional appearance hasn't changed, but young people have. He said strict tattoo limits made it hard to recruit.

“This policy change really is about being honest with ourselves and ultimately putting policies in place that reflect tattoo realities across America,” Christensen said. “We have the most talented sailors we’ve ever had in the Navy, but this is also about looking forward and making sure that our recruiting and retention are as good in the future as they are today.”

[asset-images[{"caption": "Some of the first tattoo parlors were founded by sailors in port cities. ", "fid": "126026", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201605/tattoo_box_crop.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Patricia Murphy"}]]

Of course, while millennials are getting more tattoos, body art is nothing new in the Navy. At the Puget Sound Navy Museum in Bremerton, Washington, there’s a whole exhibit devoted to maritime tattoo history. 

Curator Megan Churchwell traces it back to the 1700s. “You would use the big needles that you would use to sew a ship's sail and then you’d dip it into the ink and poke it into the skin,” Churchwell said.  

At the time tattoos were more practical than decorative. A sailor's would get his initials and maybe his birthdate tattooed so his body could be identified if he died at sea.

"It was a very painful process," Churchwell said. Infection was a problem because “this was not a sanitary process.”

There were few formal content restrictions until 1909, when the Navy issued the first regulations against obscene tattoos. From that point forward, the voluptuous bodies of pin-up girl tattoos had to be clothed just enough to get by.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Early tattoos were created using sail needles and India ink or laundry bluing.", "fid": "126027", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201605/IMG_1970.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Patricia Murphy"}]]

Still, Navy policy has always been subjective. When Spittler joined, some of his tattoos were already bigger than regulations allowed.

“I was required to sit down in front of a pretty high ranking officer at the time when I was doing my official contract and paperwork,” Spittler said. “I had explain to them the meaning behind all of my tattoos. At that time they weren’t writing waivers for tattoos that were possibly gang related or had some kind of negative meaning behind them.”

Spittler is happy to see the regulations loosened . He said there’s no reason to exclude people from jobs simply because of their body art, even if they have as much as he has: both legs, his right arm and now his left arm.

He said it represents luck. “Eventually this whole arm is going to have to do with my family, so at the top it just made sense to have something that represented good fortune,” Spittler said.

Even with the Navy’s changes, some ink is still taboo, like head tattoos, symbols of gangs or extremist groups, or obscenity.

Tattoo regulations in the other service branches haven't changed.