The Coast Guard is the last armed service to wave the white flag on tattoos

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The Coast Guard regularly takes on smugglers and drug traffickers in roiling seas. But even the nation’s first line of defense has yielded to a seemingly irresistible force right here in the U.S., namely the desire for would-be recruits to cover themselves with tattoos. So, it’s revised its policy. Federal Drive with Tom Temin talked about it with the commanding officer of the Coast Guard Recruiting Command, Capt. Richter Tipton.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Captain Tipton, good to have you on.

Capt. Richter Tipton: Hey, thanks for having me here.

Tom Temin: So the Coast Guard, I guess, is the last of the armed services really to, if you’ll pardon the expression, fall in line with new revised tattoo policies. Is it basically a recruiting issue for the Coast Guard?

Capt. Richter Tipton: Well, yes, actually. So let me first start by saying that the Coast Guard is hiring. And we’re offering a ton of pay and benefits, as well as job satisfaction to the top talent of our country. And frankly, the talent of today doesn’t really look like the talent of years past. So modifying our policies and bringing in folks that have tattoos that may not formerly had been accepted is one of the ways that we can reach better talent and more talent and get those folks into the Coast Guard so they can serve our nation.

Tom Temin: And describe the new policy for us. What can people have for ink versus what they could have before?

Capt. Richter Tipton: So we’re now authorizing one tattoo behind one ear, that is an inch by an inch, that’s a new location for us. We’re also authorizing a one by one inch tattoo on each hand, on the hand itself. And then on one finger from the first knuckle to the end of the finger, which is a new policy, before it was between the first and the second knuckle. So that allows us to bring in a few more folks that we normally would have, without compromising what we believe to be a professional look inside the military.

Tom Temin: Sure, because ordinarily, on the rest of the body, I guess, you wouldn’t see them anyway, in normal circumstances when they’re interacting with the public or whatever.

Capt. Richter Tipton: That’s exactly right. So we do authorize tattoos on the other parts of the body that are not visible under the uniform, that’s fine for us. Also, this policy is a new policy in that it allows for the finger tattoo to be visible in what we call the position of attention. So with your hands at your sides, fingers in a natural curl, you could actually be able to see the tattoo. So that’s new for us. It’s a minor change, but we think it’s going to pay big dividends.

Tom Temin: And what about sleeves that go all the way down, say to the wrist? Are those allowable?

Capt. Richter Tipton: Sure, we authorized that, absolutely. So you can have a sleeve all the way down to the wrist. It’s basically if you were to flex your hand back, and you’ll see creases appear between your wrist and your arm, you can have sleeves down to the first crease.

Tom Temin: And for people that are already in then, they can add to the level allowed by the policy.

Capt. Richter Tipton: Right. So this is not just an assertions policy, it’s a change to the Coast Guard tattoo policy. Now I’m pretty certain that most Coasties aren’t gonna run out and get brand new tattoos and the locations, but I mean it is authorized.

Tom Temin: Because in the Navy, and to some extent in the Army, at least one tattoo has been the cultural norm for decades since World War II, maybe before you get one on the forearm and anchor or something. And that was pretty much it for life. How about in the Coast Guard, is there a rite of passage in the Coast Guard that’s marked by a tattoo?

Capt. Richter Tipton: Well, I think that may have been historically accurate. But I think now tattoos are more of creative self expression. So we’re seeing a difference in the younger generation. They’re no longer, it’s not a rite of passage so much as it is a demonstration of their own expression of self.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Captain Richter Tipton. He’s commanding officer of the Coast Guard Recruiting Command. And did you consult or look at the other military services policies before establishing this one?

Capt. Richter Tipton: We are familiar with the other services policies. And I think a side by side comparison, you’d see that the Navy has a less restrictive policy, and we do, we fall in behind the Navy as far as restrictiveness goes, and then the other services are more restrictive.

Tom Temin: And this has been kind of creeping out from beneath the collar and beneath the short sleeve for some time now. I think there’s been a few revisions say in the Army in recent years. But at some point, do you see this ever stopping? Because gangs, MS-13, some horrible people in the world are marked by their faces covered, their heads covered, you see some pretty scary looking situations. So at some point, do you anticipate saying that’s it, that’s as far as you can go?

Capt. Richter Tipton: I do. And I think this current policy allows for an increased self expression by the individual while still maintaining professional military appearance, and what would you would come to expect from not only an armed service, but also a law enforcement agency. So we go through particular pains to make sure that all of the tattoos that our members have do not violate our core values. That is there’s no tattoos that represent racism, discrimination, indecency, extremist or supremist philosophies. We go through a lot of pains to make sure that we don’t have tattoos that fall into those categories.

Tom Temin: Yep, there’s that gray area, say skulls and snakes and daggers. Where do they fall?

Capt. Richter Tipton: Well, it’s a case by case basis when you start to get there in the gray area. So what we would ask is that if you’re interested in joining the Coast Guard, that you come to a Coast Guard recruiting office, and we’ll look at your tattoos and if we have some questions, and we can take pictures and send them up to myself, and then if I still have concerns, we’ll send them over to the policy shop for final adjudication.

Tom Temin: Sure. And how do you get the word out, say, or do you get the word out to tattoo parlors? Because the ones I’ve been in, you’re not going to find too much information on military policy. And I admit, I’ve got a couple small ones myself, as much as my wife would allow. But can you get the word out so that perhaps some of the places near recruiting stations or in the big cities can advise people, well, if you’re thinking of enlisting, don’t do this?

Capt. Richter Tipton: That’s a fantastic question. And I think we probably do need to reach out to our friends in those industries and let them know what the left-right limits are for our people so that we don’t inadvertently give someone a tattoo that later they either have to remove or would be disqualifying.

Tom Temin: Yeah. What about removal? Is there any benefit from the Coast Guard for the removal costs or that’s on your own dime?

Capt. Richter Tipton: That’s usually on your own dime. We have not authorized at this point, any sort of government expenditure for removing tattoos, but we do recommend that if there’s a tattoo that’s concerning, that you begin the tattoo removal process, and we’ll work with you. Because, I mean, frankly, enlisting in the United States military takes some time. So there is some time on the table. And we can work with the individual to work with the tattoo removal process. And in many cases, you’re never going to get the tattoo completely removed. So we can monitor progress and say, yep, that’s where we think that’s good enough for us and we’ll process you in.

Tom Temin: I guess, in dress situations, or situations that might be publicly viewed, there’s always pancake makeup, doesn’t always have to go on the face.

Capt. Richter Tipton: True. But that would not be something that we’re looking at. We hold the line pretty hard on where the tattoos are located and we go very closely to the policy, which is why we think this policy change is actually pretty solid for us. We like where it’s at. We think this opens up the aperture for some folks that normally would have self disqualified, maybe even presented themselves to a recruiting office, and were disqualified because of violation of policy. Now, we think that we’ll be able to bring those folks into the Coast Guard.

Tom Temin: And how is recruiting going generally for the Coast Guard?

Capt. Richter Tipton: Well, it’s a tough environment out there. I mean, the pandemic has limited our access to what would normally be recruiting areas, we call them COIs, or communities of interest, centers of interest and centers of influence. And we would probably characterize this as a very tough recruiting environment. My recruiting goal this year is 4,200, which is an increase over years past. So we’re working hard and diligently with my 56 officers and 334 folks in the field to fill that need.

Tom Temin: And just an off the wall question, how do you distinguish to a recruit between the Navy and the Coast Guard? Because externally, they see boats that you get on.

Capt. Richter Tipton: Sure. Well, the Navy and the Coast Guard share a lot of similarities. I mean, we have a lot of the same rates, job description for folks out there. But the Coast Guard has a mission here domestically, as well as internationally. So we believe that our mission is to sail, that if you saw what the Coast Guard does day to day, every day you’re on a boat, every day you’re on a ship every day, you’re making a difference. I mean, the Navy has a defense mission as well. And they also are hiring so the Coast Guard’s also hiring. And in addition to those pay and benefits, we offer job satisfaction that is incomparable to the others.

Tom Temin: So grey hall or white hall, it’s still great work.

Capt. Richter Tipton: It really is. And in either service, you’ll make a great difference every day.

Tom Temin: Captain Richter Tipton is commanding officer of the Coast Guard Recruiting Command. Thanks so much for joining me.

Capt. Richter Tipton: Yes sir, absolutely. It’s been a pleasure being here.

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