Former sergeant leaves new mark on Airmen

MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho -- With the steady hands of a surgeon and the focus of a seasoned painter, the artist's dedication is evident with every precise placement of his needle. Like a perfectly choreographed dance routine he hypnotically etches out his image to the rhythmic buzzing of his needle, all the while looking away from his canvas of flesh only to deliver a warm greeting to anyone who strolls through his door. He is former U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Matthew Pehrson, and his purpose is tattooing.

Although Pehrson no longer wears an Air Force uniform, he continues to serve his former brothers and sisters in-arms with the same devotion. Pehrson owns and operates a local tattoo parlor where he spends most of his time carefully creating works of art for his most frequent customers -- Airmen.

"At least 80 percent of my clients are military and military spouses," explained Pehrson. "I enjoy working near a military base because people are generally punctual and respectful, making it an easy working environment."

According to an article on nationalgeographic.com, tattooing claims a vast history of meanings spanning thousands of years. From the spiritual significance of the markings for indigenous tribesmen to their showmanship in the American circus, tattoos have always found their way into an array of cultures -- including that of the military.

All military branches, however, including the Air Force, maintain specific regulations on the content and amount of ink servicemembers can have.

Air Force Instruction 36-2903 states, "...markings anywhere on the body that are obscene, commonly associated with gangs, extremist, and/or supremacist organizations, or that advocate sexual, racial, ethnic, or religious discrimination are prohibited in and out of uniform. Markings with unauthorized content that are prejudicial to good order and discipline or the content is of a nature that tends to bring discredit upon the Air Force are prohibited both in and out of uniform."

The AFI continues in outlining what the Air Force considers overly excessive.

"...Excessive is defined as any tattoos/brands/body markings that exceed ¼ (25%) of the exposed body part and are readily visible when wearing any/all uniform combinations. The exposed body part is defined as the total area, to include front, sides and back of a limb or other body part protruding from a uniform item. For example, a tattoo exclusively on the hand cannot exceed 25% of the exposed hand since the hand is considered a separate body part when wearing a long sleeve uniform item. Any tattoos/brands above the collarbone, i.e. on the neck, head, face, tongue, lips, and/or scalp, are prohibited. For example, a tattoo/brand that can be seen on the neck while wearing an open collar, front-fastening, blue or utility uniform is prohibited."

Having served himself, Pehrson is familiar with this extensive regulation and takes care to ensure his Air Force customers are as well.

"My familiarity with the regulation allows me to ethically advise servicemembers on the tattoos they should and shouldn't get," explained Pehrson.

Pehrson's adept professionalism and attention to minute details can be attributed to his years of military service, after which he developed a passion for tattooing.

"Before I got out I was the noncommissioned officer-in-charge of my duty section, and that experience has helped me in the business world," said Pehrson. "It ingrained in me things like respecting other peoples' time, punctuality, treating people fairly and overall customer service."

Sharing a strong bond through military service with the majority of his clients provides added motivation for Pehrson to perform at his best.

"I always try the absolute best that I can, but there is some added pressure when tattooing something meaningful for a servicemember," explained Pehrson.

Many of his clients who pick up on these characteristics continue to come back to Pehrson time and time again.

"The military has been a part of my life ever since I can remember, and it feels good to know the person tattooing me not only knows what that's like but will do phenomenal work every time," said Jesse Gustafson, retired U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. and patron of Pehrson's shop.

Weeks have turned into months, and months into years since Pehrson last donned an Air Force uniform, but he never forgets "Service Before Self." Only now instead of serving with a firearm and dog tags, he does it with a needle and a smile.

"I've been married to Matt for eight years, and he is the most driven person I have ever met," declared Matt's wife, Satara Pehrson. "He works harder than anyone I've ever known, and I'm extremely proud of him."

Editor's note: The services provided by the commercial business featured in this article do not constitute official endorsement on behalf of the U.S. Air Force or Department of Defense.