Military tattoo

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A tattoo is a military performance of music or display of armed forces in general. The term comes from the early 17th century Dutch phrase doe den tap toe ("turn off the tap"), a signal sounded by drummers or trumpeters to instruct innkeepers near military garrisons to stop serving beer and for soldiers to return to their barracks, and is unrelated to the Tahitian origins of an ink tattoo.[1]

The tattoo was originally a form of military music, but the practice has evolved into more elaborate shows involving theatrics and musical performances. It is also used to designate military exhibitions such as the Royal International Air Tattoo.


Quebec City Military tattoo, Quebec, Canada

The term dates from around 1600 during the Thirty Years' War in the Low Countries (Belgium and the Netherlands). The Dutch fortresses were garrisoned with mercenary troops that were under federal command since 1594. The Dutch States Army had become a federal army, consisting mostly of Scottish, English, German and Swiss mercenaries, but commanded by a Dutch officer corps. Drummers from the garrison were sent out into the towns at 21:30 hrs (9:30 pm) each evening to inform the soldiers that it was time to return to barracks. The process was known as doe den tap toe (Dutch for "turn off the tap"), an instruction to innkeepers to stop serving beer and send the soldiers home for the night. The drummers continued to play until the curfew at 22:00 hrs (10:00 pm). Tattoo, earlier tap-too and taptoo, are alterations of the Dutch words tap toe which have the same meaning. Taptoo was the earlier used alteration of the phrase and was used in George Washington's papers in which he said:"In future the Reveille will beat at day-break; the troop at 8 in the morning; the retreat at sunset and taptoo at nine o'clock in the evening."

Over the years, the process became more of a show and often included the playing of the first post at 21:30 hrs and the last post at 22:00. Bands and displays were included and shows were often conducted by floodlight or searchlight. Tattoos were commonplace in the late 19th century with most military and garrison towns putting on some kind of show or entertainment during the summer months. Between the First World War and the Second World War elaborate tattoos were held in many towns, with the largest in Aldershot, England.

Notable examples[edit]


  • Another well-known tattoo was the Royal Tournament which was held annually in London from 1880 to 1999. The last producer of the Royal Tournament was Major Sir Michael Parker. The British Military Tournament, its successor, was established in 2010 at the former venue of the Royal Tournament, Earl's Court, lasting till 2013. Another UK tattoo is the Birmingham Tattoo held annually at the National Indoor Arena in November, which has been attracting audiences to Birmingham since 1989.
  • The Royal International Air Tattoo is the world's largest military airshow, held annually at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire in aid of the RAF Charitable Trust.
  • The Basel Tattoo (Switzerland) was started in 2006 by the local Top Secret Drum Corps. It has grown to be the world's second-largest military tattoo in terms of performers and budget after the Edinburgh Military Tattoo.
  • The Norwegian Military Tattoo is internationally famous for its quality and streamlined production. It has been held every two years since 1994 in the capital of Norway, Oslo. Since 1996 the shows have been presented indoors - in the Oslo Spektrum which is "tailor-made" for this kind of event.
  • Russia has recently started the annual "Spasskaya Bashnya" (Russian for Spasskaya Tower) international military tattoo in Moscow (with Valery Khalilov as its founding executive producer until 2016). Its Russian name came from the name of the location where it is performed (at the Red Square's "Saviour Tower"). Although it is commonly referred to as "Spasskaya Bashnya Military Tattoo", its actual English name is "International Military Music Festival", and has been held since 2006. Its latest edition will be held in late August of 2019, and the tattoo forms part of Moscow's city birthday celebrations.
  • Germany sports a huge number of such events with Bremen, Hamburg, Dresden and Berlin holding annual tattoos involving the Bundeswehr, civil bands and international bands invited.

North America[edit]

Finale scene from the 2015 Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo
  • Canada's Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo is the largest annual indoor tattoo in the world today, each year featuring over 2000 performers from around the world. The tattoo has been produced since 1979 by Colonel Ian Fraser, who also produced the Canadian Armed Forces Tattoo 1967, the world's largest travelling show. Through the course of his career Fraser has produced and / or directed more than 1000 international tattoo productions across the globe. This tattoo is unique in that it is a full theatrical production, comprising costume designers, props designers, full wardrobe staff, and is presented as 'theatre in the round'. The show is intensely rehearsed over a two-week period and is a wholly combined military and civilian production. The Nova Scotia Tattoo was the first tattoo to receive royal designation on the occasion of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II's 80th Birthday in 2006.[2]
Buglers playing the Last Post during scene 8 of Tattoo 1967
  • The Canadian Armed Forces Tattoo 1967 was the largest mobile tattoo in history performing 155 performances in 47 cities from coast to coast from the end of March to the middle of October 1967. Tattoo '67 was a completely a military production involving over 1700 personnel from the Canadian Army, Navy and Air Force. The first leg of the tour involved transporting two shows across Canada by rail. The second phase saw "the show" performed in stadiums in major cities including a week-long run in Montreal, Quebec during EXPO 67. The third phase was a tour of East Coast cities and Quebec performing in arenas. The show received rave reviews and standing ovations and was called upon by the press to become an annual event and to have it tour not only throughout the United States but Europe as well but with the last performance on October 11, 1967 at Shawinigan, Quebec, the Tattoo was mothballed. Eventually, all the costumes and uniforms were sold off to museums or private collectors and the show that was hailed as "the greatest single presentation during Centennial year" has never been produced since. The producer of Tattoo 1967, Colonel Ian Fraser also produced the Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo noted above.
  • The annual Fort Henry Tattoo is held each July at Fort Henry[3] in Kingston, Ontario. The event combines military drill, with an assortment of musical acts from across Canada, and is capped off with a fireworks display at the end of the evening. It is one of the largest annual events held at the National Historic Site.
  • The largest tattoo in the United States, and the only annual tattoo of the country, is the Virginia International Tattoo, held every year in Norfolk, Virginia. Over 850 performers play traditional music and many international acts join every branch of the United States Armed Forces.
  • The United States Air Force holds tattoos for many different events and celebrations, like base openings and closers, and special events like the 21st Annual Langley Tattoo.[6] The Air Force's largest tattoo is held the last Friday of June each year at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. The 2010 tattoo there drew an estimated 75,000 people and featured the rock group .38 Special. The 2011 event featured aircraft flyovers and music by country group Lonestar.
A member of the Commander-in-Chief's Guard (3rd Infantry Regiment) during the Twilight Tattoo.


JSDF Marching Festival 2013
  • The International Military Heritage Festival, organized by the Republic of Korea Armed Forces, is the national military tattoo of South Korea. Held every April in Seoul, it consists of performances from the military bands and drill teams of the ROKAF.
  • Hong Kong held international military tattoo events both in 2012 and 2017, on the occasion of the 15th and the 20th anniversary of the return of Hong Kong to The People's Republic of China. The Military Band of the People's Liberation Army of China and Band of the Hong Kong Police Force had essential roles to play. The performances also included military bands from Mongolia, The Netherlands, Russia, The United Kingdom (Scotland), and The United States.
  • Military tattoo-style events have been held in Indonesia in the context of major city and municipal district anniversaries in the form of the visits by the corps of drums and drum and bugle corps of the Indonesian National Armed Forces and the Indonesian National Police, which are invited to march past and perform on local anniversaries and holidays. Often times the ones frequently present in these tattoo-style events are the corps of drums of the military and police academies and the drum and bugle corps from the two military high schools in Magelang and Bandung, their appearances being a hit among the crowds attending these civic-military parades. A recent addition to these is the presence of the Corps of Drums of the Indonesian Army Officer Candidate School, also from Bandung. These events are also held within the academies' respective campuses during change of command, recognition and graduation parades as well as during their open house days, as well as during open days in military installations and anniversaries of the armed forces and police.
  • Malaysia has held special military tattoos at the Stadium Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur as part of Visit Malaysia Year and in important anniversary years of national independence.


  • In 2018, the South African Tattoo was revived. The performance included members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) performing military drills and a mock battle, as well as the Johannesburg Youth Orchestra, a collection of both local and international dancing groups and a combined performance of many of the South African Highlander Bagpipe groups.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Little Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins Julia Cresswell - 2014- Page 106 0199683638 tattoo. Tattoos on the skin came into English in the 18th century from the Polynesian languages of the Pacific Islands—Captain Cook's journals are the first to record the word. The military tattoo sounded by drum or bugle to recall soldiers to their quarters in the evening was originally written tap-too. It comes from Dutch doe den tap toe, literally 'close the tap'. The tap was on a cask, closing it signalled time for drinking was over and soldiers should go home
  2. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-05-19. Retrieved 2012-06-18.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
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  6. ^ Air Combat Command Tattoo Archived 2009-03-06 at the Wayback Machine
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