Military Tattoo Meanings

Like tattoos with spiritual and religious symbolism, military tattoos often have a strong element of the amulet or talisman connected to them. Protection in battle was often a specific requirement of tattoos acquired in many cultures and the tattoo was accompanied with rituals, incantations, and pigment which was believed to have special or magical properties.

Tattooing was carried out by Shamans, medicine men, priests and other individuals who were known to have access to special powers. These properties might render an individual invisible or impervious to the weapons of opponents. A tattoo in this instance was meant to act as a shield and a final line of personal defense. This is still a belief in places like Burma, Thailand and other areas.

In many early cultures members of warrior castes were identified with tattoos and other identifying marks. The tattoo on a soldier was as much an identifying mark as a uniform. Greek and Roman historians specifically mention many tribes whose soldiers were heavily marked with tattoos, including the Picts in Great Britain, Thracians, Scythians and many members of the Gaul and Germanic tribes. Early explorers to North America remarked that the natives were heavily tattooed, and that tattooing and body paint rituals were important preparations for battle.

In cultures where an individual’s life history was represented in their body art, tattoos were a way for individual to display their prowess in battle. The Maori marked their personal military histories with tattoos and for an Iban headhunter, every head taken was marked with special tattoos on the hands. For an Iban warrior, tattoos that showed prowess in battle had connotations for the afterlife. For the Iban and other cultures, being heavily tattooed made it a greater likelihood that deceased individuals would successfully navigate their way into the Spirit World or After Life.

In many cultures individuals must make their way after death over a river, a barrier of some sort or through a gateway. It is not uncommon for this journey to be a perilous one, or for there to be gatekeepers whose role it is to keep out unworthy individuals. A man who was heavily tattooed would find it easier to make this journey. Tattoos that fulfilled this task were seen to be as important in death as they were in life.

Other popular tattoos for active, deployed servicemen and women include the information contained on dog tags so that, in the even of loss of life, their remains can be easily identified. Blood type and emergency medical information is another wartime tattoo. If injured in combat, their medical information cannot be missed, regardless of where they are and what they are wearing. The names of children and loved ones, as well as their portraits, is popular. Those in the military can be separated from their family for months or years at a time.

A tattoo of their image, or something associated with them, is a permanent reminder and memento in a world where there is little room for personal property and extra objects. Heritage, beyond American pride, is seen as well. Those of ethnic descent, like Italian, British, Irish, French, Spanish, Russian, Mexican, Hawaiian, Cuban, or Canadian, might get a tattoo representative of that culture. When joining the military, you leave your community where there may be many others like you. In the military, people are gathered from all over the country, so pride in your origins is not uncommon. Sometimes, these tattoos are used to represent individuality in an environment designed to create unity and solidarity.

However, most military branches have rules for visible tattoos or tattoos done while in service. Typically, although this varies by specific branch and country, neck, hand, and facial tattoos are prohibited. Sometimes, there are also rules about how much of the body can be tattooed  while in service. Racist or controversial tattoos are sometimes also prohibited, along with overtly sexual, derogatory, or offensive images.

Some countries are more likely to have rules and regulations against tattooing among military servicemen, particularly less liberal countries with more conservative values and cultural ideals. America and Britain have a comparatively relaxed view of body modification that other, more strict, nations. Because of this, the acceptance and tradition of tattooing within the military is highly variable in countries throughout the world, just like the acceptance of tattooing in the civilian population.

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