Mark of a Warrior

According to VFW online, the history of placing permanent ink on the human body dates back to 4000 BC. Cultural anthropologists attribute those first tattoos to several reasons…alignment with a tribe, religious significance, or marking a significant milestone in life. Over the years, tattoos came to be part of the warrior culture.

A Pict warrior, indigenous people of what today is northern Scotland, were known to have quite complex tattoos. Image via Wikimedia commons.

Lars Krutak, a tattoo anthropologist and host of Discovery Channel’s Tattoo Hunter, told Medium’s “War is Boring” blog back in 2014:

“Tattoos and other permanent forms of body modification have been paramount in establishing the status and reputation of warriors for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.”

During the reign of the Roman Empire, soldiers carried over the tradition of tattooing their warriors from the Greeks, who used tattoos to mark slaves and criminals in case they tried to escape. During the Imperial period, there were many mercenaries in the Roman legions. Leaders often decided to tattoo them in case they tried to desert. Soldiers were tattooed with permanent dots known as the mark of SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus). They were used to identify a soldier to his unit even if he was not in uniform.

Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus, a well-known late Roman author, wrote the following on the subject of military tattoos for the Roman legions,

“The recruit, however, should not receive the military mark (tattoo) as soon as enlisted. He must first be tried if fit for service…and after their examination, the recruits should then receive the military mark.”

You had to earn your ink.

The Picts

The Picts (my distant ancestors)  lived in the northern and eastern regions of what is now Scotland from the fourth to the ninth centuries AD. They rose from smaller tribes to a large, well-organized society that was politically and militarily powerful. Alex Woolf, a medieval historian at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, tells us, “Picti is a Latin term that means ‘painted people.” This almost certainly refers to the Pictish custom of body painting and tattooing. Roman writers spoke of the Picts being fearsome warriors…savage, barbaric and troublesome.

A Pictish warrior design from internationally renowned Celtic and Pictish tattoo artist Pat Fish, who designed a small piece for me.

My Clonmacnoise cross below symbolizes eternity in that it is one continuous line with no beginning or end. When we end our earthly journey, we continue in one form or another, be that spiritual, material, or both.

The author’s Clonmacnoise cross tattoo. It symbolizes eternity, faith, balance, hope, and life.

19th Century Britain and the United States

Fast forward to the 19th century when British Army commander Fredrick Roberts said to his men,

“Every officer in the British army should be tattooed with his regimental crest. Not only does this encourage esprit de corps but also assists in the identification of casualties.”

Both aesthetic and practical…why not get one? I knew soldiers in Iraq who had copies of their dog tags tattooed on their torsos. They did this because they believed that if they were maimed badly in combat, at least this section of their torso might remain recognizable and enable them to be accounted for.

Martin Hildebrandt immigrated from Germany to the US, where he enlisted in the Navy, serving on the USS United States from 1846-1849. It was there that he learned the art of tattooing from another sailor. About that time, it became common for sailors to tattoo each other at sea. In the 1850s, Hildebrandt traveled to Japan as part of the Perry Expedition, where he learned their tattooing techniques and styles. During the Civil War, he served as a soldier in the Army of the Potomac, where he went from camp to camp, tattooing the men. Typical subjects were flags, cannons, muskets, sabers…and initials. Soldiers would often have their names or initials tattooed about their bodies to aid in identification in case they were killed in combat.

Following the war, he returned to New York City, where he opened up what was perhaps the nation’s first tattoo parlor in a tavern on Oak Street in Manhattan. This would have been around 1870-1872.

A preserved page from a 19th-century flash book. Screenshot from Twitter and @FolkArtMuseum


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Present Day

If you’ve ever driven around a military post, you’ll quickly notice there is no shortage of tattoo shops. Just about everyone I can think of that I know from the armed forces has at least one tattoo. Many have several. It has been a right of passage and, like in Roman times, a way to identify with your unit.

SF medical tattoo. “The scalpel of doom”


In their online piece, A Short History of Military Tattoos, the VFW says, “In 2009, the Army reported that some 90% of combat soldiers had at least one tattoo—a much higher percentage than the one in five people in the general population with a tattoo. Themes typically included pride in service, patriotism, unit identification, and memorials. “

In recent years, with the prevalence of tattoos in the general population, it seems that more and more people want to know what the military considers acceptable tattoos for servicemembers. It’s easier to state the prohibitions. Servicemembers cannot have tattoos that are:

  • Anti-American
  • Racist
  • Sexist
  • Gang-related
  • Extremest
  • Ethnically or religiously discriminatory
  • Obscene
  • Suggestive of drug use

Of course, this policy leaves a lot of room for interpretation, and there are times when a potential servicemember must apply for a waiver to have their artwork individually approved. This process can take weeks, and there are instances where potential recruits simply switch to a branch of the service with a less restrictive tattoo policy rather than wait for a decision.