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 is 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 others are not pleased.

"I guess I'll get the other half later," grumbled Slaton, 24, from Eden Prairie, Minn.

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.

Nadrchal said he was unsure whether he would reenlist: "There's all these little things. They are slowly chipping away at us."

The Marine Corps commandant, Gen. James T. Conway, announced the policy change last week, saying, "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.

The Army actually relaxed its tattoo restrictions last year. Soldiers can now get ink on the back of their hands and the lower back of the neck.