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What is the Military Tattoo? – The Answer Will Surprise You!

Written by Everett Bledsoe / Fact checked by Brain Bartell

what is the military tattoo

Have you ever heard of a military tattoo? Yes, I chose the word “heard” instead of “seen” for a reason. Here, “tattoo” is not referring to the typical inked design on a person’s skin. The word “heard” is a big hint for the question, “What is the military tattoo?” Can you guess the answer?

If you thought of a military band or a military music performance, then you have earned yourself a pat on the back. By definition, a military tattoo is a music performance or display by the Armed Forces. Surprising, right?

There is so much more to know about military tattoos; you surely do not want to miss out! So go ahead and keep reading. Do not stop until you reach the very end!

In addition, we will provide you with a few notable examples of military tattoos all around the world.

What Is a Military Tattoo?

As briefly touched upon earlier, the military tattoo’s meaning is a military performance or display of music. It was initially not as showy and was a part of a military routine. The process involved trumpeters and drummers. Interestingly, it was also associated with soldiers, beers, and a curfew, all of which we will talk about in a bit.

Fun Fact: Other names that we use for military tattoos are soldiers’ tattoos and Army tattoos. However, they are not official.

What Is the Meaning Behind a Military Tattoo?


As the year passed, the “doe den tap toe” became showier and showier. The “accessories” were added like searchlights and floodlights. By the late 19th century, it had evolved to be almost like a festival in garrison and military towns, particularly during summertime. These continued even between the World Wars. Nowadays, military tattoos occur in North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Needless to say, there are good reasons why military tattoos are held across so many continents.

The meaning that a tattoo carries is military custom and heritage. In a way, it is a celebration of the military and a means of demonstrating the military body.

Why Is It Called a Military Tattoo?


The name “military tattoo” dates back to the 17th century. It is from the phrase “doe den tap toe”, which translates into “turn off the tap”. The phrase refers to a signal made by trumpeters and drummers to announce to in-keepers by military garrisons to stop giving soldiers beers so they can return to the barracks. Each evening, this would happen at 21:30 or 9:30 P.M. The trumpeters and drummers would play until 22:00 or 10:00 P.M, which was the curfew.

“Tap toe” became tap-too—an alteration used in official writing: George Washington’s papers. Eventually tap-too became tattoo—the term we hear and use today.

Notable Examples

North America

  • The Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo

The largest indoor tattoo held annually is Canada’s Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo. The tattoo started in 1979 and today, features more than 200 performers from all around the world. Uniquely, it is a military and civilian combined production with great emphasis on costumes and props.

  • The Canadian Armed Forces Tattoo (1967)

The largest mobile tattoo was Canada’s Armed Forces Tattoo in 1967. There were a total of 155 performances across 47 cities. The tattoo lasted from late March to mid-October. The tattoo involved more than 1700 military personnel from the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force.

The uniforms and costumes used were sold to museums and private collectors. Its producer Colonel Ian Fraser was also the “mind” behind the previously mentioned Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo.

  • The Virginia International Tattoo

This is the largest annual tattoo in the United States. It is held in Norfolk, Virginia with more than 850 traditional music players and international acts along with all the military branches of the Armed Forces.

  • The Twilight Tattoo

This is a special tattoo that lasts an hour long. It is hosted by Washington’s Military District in the summer at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall. The typical participating units are the 3rd Infantry Regiment and the Old Guard Fife & Drum Corps.

  • The Cleveland International Tattoo

This is a traditional annual tattoo in Cleveland, Ohio. It started in 1985 and continues to be held on the third weekend of May. The Cleveland Public Auditorium is the official stage.


  • The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo

The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo is held as part of the annual Edinburgh Festival in Europe. It is one of the largest and best-known tattoos. Its highlight is the combination of traditional sounds from drums and bagpipes and modern features of the Armed Forces.

Take a closer look into the Edinburgh Military Tattoo here.

  • The Royal International Air Tattoo

This is the largest military airshow in the world. It is held every year in Gloucestershire at RAF Fairford with aid from the RAF Charitable Trust.

  • The Basel Tattoo

This is a 15-year-old tattoo in Switzerland. It was established by the Top Secret Drum Corps and now, it is the second-largest tattoo just after the Edinburgh Military Tattoo.

  • The National Military Tattoo

The National Military Tattoo is the Netherlands Armed Forces’ official military tattoo. From 1948 to 2006, it was held in Breda and Delft. Afterward, it was relocated to the Rotterdam Ahoy, an indoor stadium.


  • The International Military Heritage Festival

This is Korea’s national military tattoo. It is held by the nation’s Armed Forces every April in the capital city, Seoul. There are well-rehearsed performances from drill teams and military bands.

  • The Japan Self-Defense Forces Marching Festival

This is Japan’s national military tattoo. There are bands from Japan’s Self-Defenses Forces’ branches as well as Asia-Pacific guest bands. On top of that, there is the unique participation of traditional drum teams. It has been held in Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan every November since 1963.

  • Eskeri Kernei

Eskeri Kernei, which can roughly translated into “Military Trumpet International Festival” is a notable military tattoo in Kazakhstan. It is held on Capital City Day, an official public national holiday (July 6).


  • The 10th Anniversary of the Rhodesian Light Infantry Formation MIlitary Tattoo

This was a special tattoo at Salisbury’s Glamis Stadium to commemorate the formation of the Rhodesian Light Infantry (January 30, 1971). The performance included an impressive sky-dive and a staged assault. There was also a retreat ceremony and a march afterward.

  • The 40th Anniversary of the Libyan Revolution MIlitary Tattoo

This was a celebratory tattoo in Tripoli’s Green Square (September 2009), as part of the Libyan Revolution’s 40th-anniversary celebrations. It was also called the World Military Music Festival, featuring units from Ethiopia, Algeria, and Russia.

  • The South African Tattoo

This 2018-revived military tattoo included South African National Defence Force’s members and the Johannesburg Youth Orchestra. The former performed military drills and mock battles, while the latter involved local and international dancers and bagpipe groups.


Knowing the answer to “What is the military tattoo?” is a good starting point to understand more about the niche topic. With what we have written above, you should now know traditional Army tattoos and meanings, the military tattoo history, and notable military tattoo examples.

Did you find this article interesting and informative? Let us know what you think in the section below for comments. Also, do not hesitate to reach out to us if you have additional questions. We are always super happy to hear from our readers.

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