Navy gets under sailors' skin with tattoo policy changes
NEW LONDON, Conn. — At 18, Mark Hillyer sold a pint of blood and a half pint of whiskey for $10 so that he could get his first tattoo.
The tattoo he wanted cost $12, so he opted for an eagle on his right forearm, which ran him $8.
"I joined the Navy in 1967 and I got tattooed that same year," Hillyer, now a 67-year-old retired master chief, said recently during an interview in his Oakdale home.
During Hillyer's 30-year career, sailors weren't allowed to have tattoos that showed when they were in uniform.
Starting April 30, when some of the biggest modifications to the Navy's tattoo policy go into effect, that will change.
For the first time, sailors will be able to have a neck tattoo, as long as it isn't longer than 1 inch in any direction. And there will be no limit to the size or number of tattoos they can have below the elbow and knee.
The changes are in response to the increased popularity of tattoos among both current sailors and potential recruits— the Navy doesn't want to miss opportunities to recruit talented young people who are willing to serve.
Tattoos are becoming increasingly popular among millennials and Gen Xers, 47 percent and 36 percent of whom, respectively, have at least one, according to the Harris Poll. Both groups are also more likely than their elders to have multiple tattoos— 37 percent and 24 percent, respectively.
Tattoos have long remained a part of the Navy's culture. Fifty years after getting his first one, Hillyer is covered in tattoos, 93 to be precise.
Petty Officer 1st Class Chris Remiesiewicz, 30, a sonar technician stationed at the Naval Submarine Base in Groton, has lost count of the number of tattoos he has, but said he has well over 20.
"It helps me tell my story," Remiesiewicz said. "Just about every tattoo that I have has some type of meaning— where I got it, what country I was in, what port I was in, a stage of my life or career."
Remiesiewicz has made it a point to get tattooed when he pulls into a foreign port, if allowed, which is popular among sailors.
He has a skull and crossbones from England, a mermaid from Turkey, a Viking helmet from Norway, a horseshoe and clover sitting on water and a "pin up"— the face of a woman with a Dixie cup on her head —that he got during two different visits to Scotland. He said he's probably forgetting some and that the tattoos help "piece together my journey around the world while I've been in the Navy."
The updated tattoo policy is the biggest change that Remiesiewicz has seen since he signed up in 2005.
"There's a lot of talk about the new policy (and) that it's probably the most drastic change that anyone's seen in a long time when it comes to tattoos," he said.
The tattoo policy is enforced by command, and sailors are supposed to get permission before getting a new tattoo.
"Some commands are very strict on it, where they don't allow you to get tattoos unless you have your highest qualifications done. Some commands are very lenient on it and just say 'Hey route a chit (a request), let us know what you want to do. Give us the heads up on what you're doing,'" Remiesiewicz said.
Sailors have plenty of tattoo shops to choose from locally. The Town of Groton has four tattoo shops, the City of Groton two, and New London has five.
"We've had a few come in and are pretty excited about it, and have made appointments," Jennifer Steele, owner of Flats Tattooing in Groton, said of the updated policy. Steele took over for her father, Guy Flatley, who opened the shop in 1988 and incorporated it in 1991.
Over the years, artists at Flats have paid for a taxi or two to pick up a group of sailors who wanted to get tattooed.
"A lot of them when they first get here, they don't have money and they don't have cars," Steele said.
Ten to 15 years ago, Flats had a monopoly on tattooing in the area. In the 1990s and 2000s, customers, mainly sailors, would line up outside the door.
"I would come on Saturday mornings and there would literally be a line from the door going around the sidewalk," Cory Pierce, a tattoo artist and manager at Flat's said. "We'd be there from noon to midnight."
Pierce was still in the Navy at the time and teaching at the base.
Mike Spittler, owner of Bank Street Tattoo in New London and a Petty Officer 1st Class in the Navy assigned to shore duty at the base, said he usually doesn't go a week without tattooing a sailor. This past week, he tattooed a fellow sailor who has had eight of his nine tattoos done by Spittler.
He learned how to tattoo 15 years ago, but didn't become serious about it until he joined the Navy eight years ago.
"I was working in construction before the Navy and wasn't taking tattooing seriously, but now I'm around a bunch of other people that are into tattooing as well," he said.
When the USS Missouri returned to Groton from deployment in mid-February, Spittler offered sailors a $50 credit to be used in conjunction with the shop's 20 percent military discount. He said he's working towards "doing something for every boat when they come back."
Sailors often get tattooed soon after returning from deployments. As Hillyer, the retired master chief, put it, "nothing heals on a submarine."
"Anybody that has tattoos will tell you, you kind of get an itch after you haven't been tattooed for a while. Usually on deployment those boats are gone from six to nine months. When you get back, it's time," Spittler said.
About a week after he returned to Groton from his last deployment, Remiesiewicz, and 10 other sailors on his boat, got "shipmate" tattooed on their knuckles.
"We did everything in port together. We did everything at sea together," he said. "When you're on a submarine, your life is in everyone else's hands. Their life is in your hands. So you get that tight, tight bond that is pretty much unbroken at any point in time. This signified that I got your back, you got my back."