FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — Pfc. Thomas Linton walked into the Ink Well tattoo shop on Bragg Boulevard on Friday afternoon with cash in his pocket and a mission on his mind.
Before the ink dries on new Army rules that are expected to ban tattoos below the knee or elbow, Linton plans to get some more on himself.
“I want a half-sleeve, for sure,” he said, using a finger to mark the distance down from his shoulder he’d like to have completely covered with etchings. “I just love ink. It’s an expression of yourself.”
But as commanders used to say about spouses, if the Army wanted its soldiers to have portraits of mothers, names of girlfriends or drawings of Mickey Mouse on their exposed skin, it would issue them.
Until now, it has tolerated tattoos, if they weren’t obscene, extremist, racist or gang-related, banning only those on the head, neck and face. Enforcement of the policy has varied, slackening at the height of the war in Iraq when the Army needed more soldiers.
With that war over and cuts in troop strength expected as the United States withdraws from Afghanistan next year, Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond Chandler III said last month a new, stricter policy is in the works and could take effect in 30 to 60 days.
Current soldiers who have tattoos that violate the new regulations would be “grandfathered,” but new recruits would have to remove skin art that stretches onto the extremities before they would be allowed to join.
The changes have created a tick in business at some of the two dozen or so tattoo shops in Fayetteville whose customers include soldiers at Fort Bragg.
James “Vinny” Vinson, who manages the Ink Well shop in a small retail center a few miles from post, said he’s seen a lot of soldiers coming in to get new tattoos while they still can.
He’s also had an increase in tattoo removals, nearly all of them among young, aspiring soldiers who had paid for artwork that will cost twice as much or more to burn off with a laser.
“I just got this a couple of months ago,” said Travaris Brinson, 26, whose etching of his baby daughter’s name on his left forearm is still so fresh it looks like a decal.
When he went to talk to his recruiter last week, the man showed him a diagram of a human body with the parts that can’t be used as a canvas marked off-limits.
It cost Brinson $40 to have “Valayah” etched on. It’ll cost him $100 to get it taken off.
A century ago, tattoos were permanent souvenirs U.S. sailors brought back from distant ports. They’re now a mainstream accessory, available to anyone older than 18.
Designs can come from anywhere. Ink Well’s three tattoo artists can do original work, copy images off the Internet or from photographs or drawings customers bring in, or combine what the customer has in mind with their own ideas.
Often, customers have little idea what they want when they walk in and choose a design from one of the artists’ portfolios or by looking at Googled images of tattoos on the shop’s computer.
Skulls, dragons and menacing animals still proliferate, along with hearts, floral motifs and beloved cartoon characters, but customers also ask for favorite poems, portraits of loved ones and religious images. Jesus in a crown of thorns is popular.
Once they’ve settled on a design, customers take a seat on the bench that runs the length of the red-and-black themed store, waiting for their turn in one of the artists’ booths.
Artist Brad Armstrong said that when people sit down in his chair ask, “Does it hurt?” he tells them straight up.
“Yeah, it hurts. It’s kind of like if I just took your skin and scraped it on the concrete.”
The pain lingers for just a day or two, said Armstrong, who has tattoos of his own.
Then it scabs over, itches for a while and heals.
For soldiers, whose lives are built around the concept of uniformity, it’s a small price to pay for a glimpse of individuality.