Air Force ink: A cultural evolution

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class James Thompson
  • 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

Culture is an ever-changing manifestation of arts and intellect. It allows for people of all shapes, ethnicities and backgrounds alike to express themselves through tattoos where their pride, beliefs or imaginative elements are forever inked in their skin.

For approximately 20 years, the Air Force reinforced a policy that prohibited excessive tattoos. Airmen or those interested in pursuing a career in the Air Force were not allowed to display a body marking that exceeded 25 percent of an exposed body part. However, as of Feb. 1, 2017, a new policy is in effect in order to expand the eligibility for future Airmen to also retain those who currently serve.

The policy eliminates the 25 percent rule and removes size limitations to tattoos on the chest, back, arms and legs. It provides a clear definition of prohibited tattoos on the neck, face, head, tongue, lips and/or scalp. It also limits hand tattoos to one single-band ring tattoo, on one finger, on one hand.

Current Airmen who have authorized hand tattoos under the previous tattoo policy that do not conform to the new tattoo policy will be grandfathered in.

Creech is full of active duty members with tattoos who are excited about the new policy and what it means for the future.

“The Air Force has traditionally been one of the more progressive arms of the military, but sometimes progress occurs slowly,” said Maj. Matthew, 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing Commander’s Action Group chief. “As older generations become less impactful to policy, the younger military members will continue to make strides.”

Matthew also explained that the policy change reflects the younger demographic and demonstrates the Air Force's continued flexibility and it's endeavor to evolve while adhering to core values.

“A lot of people like to distinguish others who have excessive tattoos as bad people, but I know a lot of good guys who would’ve joined but couldn’t because of the tattoo regulations at that time,” said Senior Airman David, 799th Security Forces Squadron alarm monitor.

David predicts the change will help further the diversity of the Air Force working environment and, ultimately, strengthen air power.

To expand the Air Force's recruiting pool, it is imperative to reach people from all parts of society and upbringings. 

“It was hard growing up,” said Senior Airman DelAngel, 432nd Wing administration journeyman. “My mom was a single mother with four children and we were brought up well thanks to her hard work. I lived in a Milwaukee city, known as mini Chicago, where many people go down the wrong path.”

DelAngel said his tattoos reflect his hard work and ability to persevere and better himself, an ability that was fostered from admiring his own mother’s determination and growing up in an unpredictable neighborhood.

Among his tattoos, the phrase ‘Eat or Starve’ spans across his forearm.

“It’s funny when some people ask what my tattoo means, because if I saw this tattoo on someone else I would know right away,” DelAngel said. “Obviously if you don’t eat, you’ll starve, but it’s deeper than that. I know people who aren’t working toward their goals or doing anything with themselves. They’re not eating. If you don’t work hard toward your goals then you might not get anything. I think my tattoos show the urban part of the city and culture that I grew up in.” 

DelAngel’s dream is to serve, retire after 20 or more years and then become a successful realtor. He hopes others who may have grown-up under similar circumstances, now, get the chance to serve in the Air Force to pursue their own goals.

“I think it allows us to be individuals, bring our own mindset to the table and our own history, values and thoughts to accomplish the mission,” DelAngel said. “Now that the Air Force is open to those who may have what used to be thought of as excessive tattoos, I think we’re exposing ourselves to new ideas from the different corners of the world, socially and culturally.”