What's In A Tattoo & Why Do They Matter To The Military?

The idea of tattooing allegedly entered Great British popular culture as a result of the Navy, who discovered the art on their worldwide...

Military tattoos have a long and colourful history.

The idea of tattooing allegedly entered British popular culture because of the Navy, who discovered the art on their worldwide travels.

Captain Cook brought back drawings of Polynesian Islander's inked skin, known in Samoan as ‘tatau’ and believed it to ward off evil spirits.

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, tattooing was primarily associated with sailors, and its military associations remain strong to this day - the US Army’s website states that around 90% of its members sport some sort of ink.

Although figures for the percentage of tattooed UK service members are unavailable, the British Army’s lift on their ban on visible tattoos says a lot about their popularity.

Some of the most common military tattoo designs are the corps or regimental insignia, dagger designs, the traditional naval anchor, squadron crest tattoos, and military crosses.  

We spoke to Plymouth based tattoo artist Neil Pengilley to find out what made military tattoos unique: 

"The Army and Royal Marine commandos tend to get the dagger just after they pass out, as a sort of celebration.

"When they've been in for a few years they might get the globe and laurel. You get a lot of retired military who get things like clouds and angels, as a way of remembering friends who've passed on.

"They definitely inspire each-other. Obviously they're trained to think as one, so if one of them gets a certain type of tattoo, a lot of them will follow. One guy recently came in and got a St Michael, and then a lot of the others followed and got the same. You can definitely tell a Royal Marine by his tattoos and the banter they come out with." 


St Michael Tattoo Design

Back in 2014, when the ban on hand and neck tattoos was first discarded, a spokesperson for the MoD said:

"Tattoos have become more acceptable in society over the last decade and, in recent years, there has been an increasing number of personnel with tattoos on visible areas.

"There is no evidence that commanders have found these to have an adverse impact on operational effectiveness and as a result there has been a reluctance to discharge those who breached the policy."

In the year before the ban was lifted, a freedom of information request revealed that the British Army rejected 336 applications due to the nature or positioning of their tattoos.

Of course, offensive, obscene or racist tattoos are still banned in all branches of the British Military.


We spoke to a member of the British Army who has really embraced the military tattoo tradition.

Staff Sergeant Jordan Kerman, who is PTI, recently travelled to Australia with the UK Armed Forces Rugby League Squad and whilst there he explained exactly what was behind his tattoos.

They all have a story to them, from the death of his father when he was 10 to the island he loves to go to on holiday, Ibiza.

Watch the video above to find out more...