The military and tattoos have a long-standing relationship. Because sailors spread tattooing from port to port throughout the modern world, Navy sailors were obviously among them. The Navy is the branch of military that serves and operates at sea. Most countries that border a sea or ocean have a Navy. Symbols of sailing and sailors became synonymous with the men, because this was before women served in the military. Anchors, swallows, hula girls, chickens and pigs, and patriotic symbols were, and still are today, very common. Like many military tattoos, anchors, chickens, and pigs were basically safety charms to ensure a safe trip and safe return. Anchors can signifiy or represent stability, which serve to hold the ship fast and provided a firm position in unstable and dangerous waters.
Chickens and pigs were lucky symbols that protected the wearer from drowning or falling overboard.
Swallow tattoo designs, or blue birds, were symbols of an accomplished sailor.
A sailor must travel a certain number of miles before they earned the right to wear a swallow tattoo. Other traditions include crossing the Atlantic, returning from across the Atlantic, and crossing the Equator. You could tell the accomplishments and milestones a military sailor achieved by reading his tattoos. Hula girls were representative of natives, often symbols of distant lands the ship had visited or the allure and mystery of the indigenous people.
From this illustrious history, tattoos have become a huge part of service in most branches of the military. Committing your life to the service of your country is an enormous sacrifice that bonds those who work together. Branches of the military, like Navy, Air Force, and Army, are usually very proud of their branch and very protective of their fellow service men and women. Tattoos representative of these branches, like the emblems and insignia specific to each, are very popular tattoo designs.
Perhaps even more closely knit, elite corps like the Marines and the special forces like the Green Berets have particularly high morale and fierce pride and solidarity. Pride in one's service is more likely to encourage expressions of that pride, which can take the form of tattoos.
The US Marines, for example, are known as the Devil Dogs, which they take great pride in. Tattoos of the Marine emblem, dogs, eagles, and flags are very common among members of the US Marine Corps.
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.
Gun tattoo designs, often representations of the soldier's actual weapons and equipment, are very common among military personnel.
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.
Tribute or memorial style tattoos are also a common design. They are done to honor a fellow soldier who has perished in the line of duty. Often seen with lettering tattoo designs (like names of fallen soldiers), these tattoos show how soldiers are close to each other, and share a bond so intense that many people cannot understand.
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. As of January 2006 however, the Army's policies on hand and neck tattoos have changed. Sometimes, there are also rules about how much of the body can be tattooed while in service.
Racist or controversial tattoos are 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. Of course, patriotic tattoo designs are more than allowed and sometimes even encouraged.
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.