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."
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 Pomona, 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 Donnelly said.