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What Is a Military Tattoo?

The word military tattoo may lead people to imagine a soldier with tattoos on their body, such as a tattoo honoring their branch of the military. Yet, a military tattoo has nothing to do with body ink. So, what is a military tattoo?

A military tattoo is a musical display performed by the military. Military tattoos evolved from a process called “doe de tap toe,” which was Dutch for “turn off the tap.” The Dutch States Army sent drummers through garrison towns to mark curfew. By the late 19th century, military tattoos were commonplace.

What Is a Military Tattoo?

A military tattoo is a type of musical performance or ceremony performed by members of the military. Tattoos are held around the world and include various displays of pageantry. Most tattoos include music, marching bands, and precision drills. 

In some cases, military bands from different nations come together for an international ceremony. The traditions vary, but the origins of military tattoos go back to the early 17th century.

After the Thirty Years’ War, the Dutch Army maintained garrisons throughout the low countries of Belgium and the Netherlands. The Dutch Army was commanded by a Dutch officer corps but mostly consisted of English, Scottish, German, and Swiss mercenaries. 

To ensure that soldiers understood it was time to return to the barracks each evening, drummers were sent out to complete a process called doe den tap toe (turn off the tap). The drumming informed the innkeepers to stop serving beer and lasted for about 30 minutes each evening.

Alterations of the Dutch words “tap” and “toe” evolved to become “taptoo” and eventually “tattoo.” As the years progressed, the drumming progressions became more complex. Instead of simply letting soldiers know it was curfew time, the drumming became a show. 

Tattoos became more common through the centuries. Between World War I and World War II, tattoos were held in towns throughout Europe. 

 A member of the Commander-in-Chief's Guard (3rd Infantry Regiment) during the Twilight Tattoo
A member of the Commander-in-Chief’s Guard (3rd Infantry Regiment) during the Twilight Tattoo
U.S. Army

Does the Military Still Hold a Tattoo?

Yes, many militaries around the globe still hold annual tattoos. The US Army, US Marine Corps, Canadian Military, and many of the militaries throughout Europe hold military tattoos at barracks and military installations. 

The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo is one of the most famous military tattoos and includes performances from a variety of military bands. The British Armed Forces, international bands, and various teams perform on the Esplanade of Edinburgh Castle.

The performances occur every weekday evening and twice on Saturdays throughout August. The performances have never been canceled due to the weather. However, the organizers had to cancel the tattoos in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Each performance includes a procession of bands and teams, along with a fireworks display. Attendance for tattoos sold out every year for 22 years. 

Tattoos are also performed in the United States. The US Army Twilight Tattoo is held each Wednesday during the summer months. The tattoo occurs at the Fort Myer Base in Arlington, Virginia. The show is free and open to the public.

The US Marine Corps also holds a free tattoo. A parade is held at the Iwo Jima Memorial in Washington, DC. The tradition began in 1956, making it one of the oldest ongoing military tattoos. 

What Are the Military Rules on Tattoos?

The US military has historically maintained strict rules on tattoos. While a military tattoo typically refers to a musical performance, it can also refer to body ink tattoos on members of the military. 

Almost all branches of the US military require that certain tattoos remain concealed under their standard uniform or physical training (PT) uniform. However, there are some exceptions to the rule.

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For example, Marines are permitted to have up to four tattoos visible outside of their PT uniform, which consists of a crew-neck T-shirt and shorts. Tattoos on the neck, calves, and arms are likely to be visible.

The size of visible tattoos on the lower arms must be small enough for the Marine to cover with a single hand with the fingers extended. No tattoos are allowed within two inches of the wrist bone, the elbow, or the knees. 

Tribal bands and band tattoos are allowed if the band does not exceed three inches or the width of the Marine’s four fingers when the hand is extended.

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