What is the Military Tattoo? (Meaning, Purposes & Examples)

Blog Written by JOHN COTTON / Fact-checked by LOGAN MILLER

what is the military tattoo

What is the military tattoo? A military tattoo (originally known as “tap too” or “bugle call”) is a sound played on an instrument to signal to soldiers that lights in their squad rooms must be turned off and loud talking should stop within 15 minutes.

Today, military tattoos are still used in armies around the world, but the actual military tattoo the public has come to know involves an elaborate show or performance using theatrics, parades, music, or exhibitions.

Military Tattoo Meaning


The origin of the word tattoo dates back to 1600 during the Thirty Years’ War in the Netherlands.

During that time, officers used “doe den tap-toe”, a Dutch phrase that means to turn off the tap. Doe den tap-toe is actually a drum or trumpet sound that directs innkeepers to stop serving soldiers beer.

This practice was adopted by different countries through the years. But since the 1950s, military tattoos have gone beyond soldier barracks and were introduced to the public as more of a performance.

A military tattoo can be on land, such as at parades and musical shows, while others are held as exhibits in the air or by the sea.

Military Tattoo Purposes

A military tattoo wasn’t really anything special when it started. But it was part of the military’s day-to-day rules – those assigned to sound off the tap-too signals had to do it 30 minutes before curfew.

Today, the military tattoo has become a heritage in Europe, North America, Africa, and Asia. It has now become an annual tradition as a way to celebrate the military.

Why is It Called a Military Tattoo?


The Dutch phrase “tap toe” became known to English speakers, who changed it to “tap too” and then “tattoo.” The word stuck around, and we continue to use it till today.

Notable Examples of Military Tattoos

There are numerous military tattoos held around the world. Here are the most famous ones:

1. The Royal Edinburgh military tattoo (Scotland)


Since 1950, the Edinburgh tattoo has been held every year in August during the Edinburgh Festival.

People flock to the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle to watch traditional tattoo bagpipes set, fireworks displays, and more recently, projection and laser tech displays.

About 220,000 people attend the public tattoo each year, generating £100 million in annual revenue for Edinburgh. The tattoo also raises money for charity and has given over £10 million to various causes by 2017.

2. Virginia International Tattoo (United States)


Virginia International Tattoo is the largest military tattoo in the United States.

Since its first occurrence in 1997, this tattoo has been held yearly in Norfolk, Virginia.

Over 1,000 artists from different military units, countries, and volunteers participate in the show each year. The exhibits include military drill teams, dancers, choirs, massed pipes and drums, trumpets, and other military bands.

People visit the tattoo weekend events, such as the Hullabaloo (an outdoor festival with food and beer available for purchase) and the exciting DrumLine Battle™.

3. The Royal International Air Tattoo (England)


The air force isn’t just all about air assault and airspace defense. Pilots and other air force personnel also get to perform in their own tattoos.

The Royal International Air Tattoo is the largest military airshow in the world. It is held at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire each year to raise money for the RAF Charitable Trust.

This Air Tattoo first had local-only participants during its first few years, but became an International Air Tattoo in 1976 and welcomed the air force of other countries as well.

The United States Air Force also has its own air tattoo, held every last Friday of June annually at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.

4. Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo (Canada)


The Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo is renowned for being the biggest indoor army soldier tattoo in the world. It is considered a full theatrical production complete with the participation of over 10,000 performers from around the world.

During its first event in 1979, Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo was produced and directed by Colonel Ian Fraser. Fraser was also famous for leading the now-defunct Canadian Armed Forces Tattoo, the largest mobile tattoo in history with 155 performances across 47 cities held between March and October of 1967.

This marching band tattoo is unique in that it also welcomes civilians to perform after the crew embarks on a two-week-long rehearsal period.

5. Twilight Tattoo (U.S. Military Tattoo)


This American military tattoo features soldiers from various units like The Old Guard, U.S. Army Command-In-Chief Guards, U.S. Army Drill Team, and more.

The hour-long Twilight Tattoo is held weekly during the summer at Joint Base Myer–Henderson Hall.

This army infantry tattoo is free of cost and open to the public. You just need to register through Eventbrite to reserve seats, especially if you’re attending as a group.

6. The Japan Self-Defense Forces Marching Festival (Japan)


The Japan Self-Defense Forces Marching Festival is the oldest military tattoo band in Asia. It has been held every November in Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan since 1963.

Japan’s military tattoo features a two-hour presentation that includes a mix of Japanese folk songs, pop culture songs, and traditional drummer tattoo teams. The event also features guest bands from other Asian countries.

Frequently Asked Questions


Where does the word tattoo come from?

The tattoo word origin dates back to the early 17th century. In Dutch, “doe den tap toe” means “turn off the tap.” During that time, drummers or trumpeters make a tapping sound to instruct old-timey bars to stop serving alcohol. The sound also calls soldiers to retire for the night and return to their barracks.

What happens in a military tattoo?

Every military tatto ceremony is unique. It differs among military branches and countries.

Some ceremonies include military drills, musical performances from marching bands, military demonstrations, mock battles, a parade, fireworks, and other types of entertainment.

How long is a military tattoo?

The ceremony could be as short as 30 minutes, 2 hours, or an entire day. Sometimes, the tattoo would be held throughout the weekend or a month long.

What time does the military tattoo start and finish?

The starting and closing time of military tattoos varies between events, countries, and year of the actual ceremony.

Most military tattoos have their official websites, where you can score tickets early and be updated with venue and date changes.

Can I use military logo tattoo as actual tattoo designs?

If you’re on the hunt for body ink and have been searching for tattoo ideas for soldiers or simple military tattoos to get, this isn’t the correct “tattoo” you’re looking for.

However, attending military tattoos may inspire you to get a military tattoo logo inked on your skin. If this is the case, head over to the official sites of your chosen event for high-quality copies of the tattoo logo.


What is the military tattoo? It is one way to honor the military, show camaraderie between people, and celebrate history, like a memorial tattoo.

Videos don’t do the event justice. If you can visit one near you, book your tickets early to experience watching and hearing military tattoo music and exhibits.

Note that although many of these military tattoos are free of charge, they often require reservations, especially if you’re attending in larger groups and if the show is indoors with limited seating.

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