Tattooing in the US military has a long and colorful history, from the first returning sailors in the early 1900s, to the policy changes effected during World War II. In the beginning, the tattoo scene in America was centered around side show oddities and Vaudeville. Those with many tattoos, particularly beautiful women, would accompany traveling circuses making their living as public attractions.
Then, at the turn of twentieth century, navy men began returning home with tattoos from abroad. Often these tattoos would mark a particular milestone, like crossing the equator, or traveling through the orient. So as ink began to grow in commonality amongst military sailors, the availability of tattoo artists closer to home grew also.
By the end of World War I, infantrymen and air force officers were regularly seen sporting ink as well. Many who remained in the military throughout the 1930s saw the rise of the pin up girl as a cheeky tattoo element, often accompanied by phrases such as “hold fast,” “forget me not,” and “sailor beware.” During World War II, the nude pin up was all but banned by the US military, and many of these existing designs were covered as required with flowers, ribbons, bikinis, and hula skirts.
This era also saw the development in western culture of service tattoos that served a purpose, including crests or “dog tag” tattoos that could help identify the body of a deceased soldier. From here, patriotic tattoo styles amongst the armed forces in both the US and Europe grew exponentially, and by the 1960s, many of the stigmas attached to tattooing were beginning to fade.
Today, designs that bare badges or insignia or commemorate a specific battle are common, as are those that memorialize the lost comrades of particular company, and those that show pride in belonging to an elite unit. It’s estimated that in some factions of the American military, up to 80% of those on active duty have at least one tattoo.