OCEANSIDE, Calif. – Five tattooed skulls stretch from Marine Cpl. Jeremy Slaton's right elbow to his wrist, spelling out the word "Death." He planned to add a tattoo spelling "Life" on his left arm, but that's on hold because of a Marine policy taking effect Sunday.
The Marines are banning any new, extra-large tattoos below the elbow or the knee, saying such body art is harmful to the Corps' spit-and-polish image.
Slaton and other grunts are not pleased.
"I guess I'll get the other half later," grumbled the 24-year-old leatherneck from Eden Prairie, Minn. "It's kind of messed up."
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For many Marines, getting a tattoo is a rite of passage. They commonly get their forearms inscribed to remember fallen comrades, combat tours or loved ones, and often ask for exotic designs that incorporate the Marine motto, Semper Fi, or "Always faithful."
Dozens of Marines from Camp Pendleton, the West Coast's biggest Marine base, made last-minute trips to tattoo parlors in nearby Oceanside before the ban kicked in.
"This is something I love to do," said Cpl. David Nadrchal, 20, of Ponoma, who made an appointment to get an Iraqi flag and his deployment dates etched onto his lower leg. "The fact I can't put something on my body that I want — it's a big thing to tell me I can't do that."
Nadrchal said he is unsure whether he will re-enlist: "There's all these little things. They are slowly chipping away at us."
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James T. Conway announced the policy change last week.
"Some Marines have taken the liberty of tattooing themselves to a point that is contrary to our professional demeanor and the high standards America has come to expect from us," he said. "I believe tattoos of an excessive nature do not represent our traditional values."
The ban is aimed primarily at "sleeve" tattoos, the large and often elaborate designs on the biceps and forearms of many Marines. Similar designs on the lower legs will be forbidden as well. So will very large tattoos on the upper arm, if they are visible when a Marine wears his workout T-shirt. Small, individual tattoos will still be allowed on the arms and legs. (The Marines already ban them on the hands.)
Marines already tattooed are exempt from the ban but cannot add to their designs; anyone caught with fresh ink in the wrong places could be barred from re-enlistment or face disciplinary action. Getting a prohibited tattoo could constitute a violation of a lawful order, punishable by up to two years in prison and a dishonorable discharge, Marine spokesman 1st Lt. Brian Donnolly said.
Unit commanders must photograph and document sleeve tattoos to ensure Marines do not add to their ink.
The Marines and the other branches of the military already ban tattoos that could be offensive or disruptive, such as images that are sexist, vulgar, gang-related or extremist.
The Army, which has been doing most of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and is struggling to fill its ranks, actually relaxed its tattoo restrictions last year. Soldiers can now get ink on the back of their hands and the lower back of the neck.
The Navy last year decreed that tattoos visible while in short-sleeve uniform cannot be larger than the wearer's hand. The Air Force says tattoos should be covered up if they are bigger than one-quarter the size of the exposed body part.
Tattoo artist Jerry Layton at the Body Temple Tattoo Studio in Oceanside said he was booked up with Marines rushing to beat the deadline.
"These are guys that are dying in the war," Layton said. "They can fight, but they can't get a tattoo? It's ridiculous."