Current US military policy regarding tattoos, by branch:
We took time to chat with pro-team artist and military veteran, Morgan Birky, about tattooing and military service.
ID: What branch did you serve in?
Morgan: I was in the US Army for 8 years and did 3 tours overseas. My MOS was 68W, combat medic.
ID: Did you have tattoos before entering military service?
Morgan: Oh yeah! I was raised in a military family. From the time I was 10, everyone served and everyone had ink. Tattoos were all around me. By the time I was 18, I had to have a tattoo. By the time I joined, I almost had whole sleeves on my arms.
ID: Where you affected by any policies regarding tattoos prior to enlisting?
Morgan: Yes; I had a hand tattoo. During the time I enlisted, the Army had a policy that allowed exposed tattoos with limitations but you had to get a waiver for it. It presented challenges but I stuck with it and got the waiver. After 2014, policies got much stricter. It required a tattoo body check. Weird enough, when you mark down identifying marks (scars, bruises, tattoos, etc.) it’s for just in case if something should happen, but this was a separate entity itself.
ID: What is the culture of tattoos in the military?
Morgan: Well it varies but one thing to live by if you’re thinking of joining; do not get a tattoo immediately after basic and anytime during your specialty training. Drill sergeants will take the opportunity to light you up and make an example of you.
As for myself, I considered getting the medical crest but then I thought I have other options. A lot of people get military traditional (“we the people”, a bald eagle, their unit patches, etc.) and I didn’t really want to have that. For me, I didn’t want the army to be the most exciting thing in my life, so I left that part of my life off of my body. If you truly want something to commemorate your service though, I’d say work with your artist and if they come up a better concept of your design, you should really consider it. Too many soldiers have bad tattoos because they don’t listen to their artist.
ID: How did you get into tattooing as a career?
Morgan: I actually started my initial apprenticeship while I was at the Ranger training site in Florida. I would travel about 40 miles out of the way each trip just to make it to my apprenticeship each night. Few months later, I had to put my tattooing on hold and continue with what the army had in mind.
I left active duty in 2017, that’s when I met my previous mentor in El Paso, Texas. He became my mentor and guide, helping me finish through my apprenticeship. He was key in helping me expand my skills and develop my own style. Since my last deployment and getting out of the army, I have been tattooing full-time for about 3 years with Angry Leopard Tattoo, and I currently travel to conventions throughout the US.
ID: Do you use any skills from your military training with your tattooing?
Morgan: Since I was a medic and involved in combat medicine, I understood how important blood born pathogens are. There is a risk in the field with this, as there is with tattooing. It also doesn’t hurt to have a working knowledge of anatomy and emergency medicine either.
ID: How does being a veteran impact your work?
Morgan: I have a few friends who are also veterans and involved in the tattoo industry. All in all, it’s not really impacting in my business as it is being... I guess, parallel from civilians. I hear people worrying about bills and where they wanna eat and I remember worrying about when I was going to get to go home. It’s a bit of a realization, ya know?
One thing I wanna get at, often people will thank me for my military service, and me personally, it feels like a effortless praise. I have a hard time with that, seeing as there are many veterans who are struggling in a variety of ways, myself included. Rather than just saying thanks, consider ways to help; invite someone to coffee or dinner or help them with a task. Take action, show that you care and help out your veteran neighbors. It doesn’t take much to show people that you appreciate them.