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The Origins of Nautical Tattoos
Nautical tattoos are often associated with the history of tattooing, as sailors were responsible for reviving and popularizing the ancient practice of tattooing. Sailors who collected tattoo souvenirs of their travels to the Polynesian Islands and Southeast Asia inspired interest in those tattoo designs upon their return, as people from their homelands became intrigued by the art form.
Why did sailors get tattoos?
The life of a sailor was dangerous and lonely. Many sailors lost their lives at sea. With so many months spent at sea far from home, sailors found that tattoos were a wonderful way to pass the time.
Their tattoos told the stories of their travels and also gave them imagery to use to calm their fears. Many sailors believed that their tattoo symbols were amulets and talismans that protected them while they traveled the dangerous ocean.
They also liked to keep visual reminders of their families and the women they may have met at different ports. This led to the popularity of mermaids, pin-up girls, and hearts with the names of loved ones.
Below you will find discussion and examples of each of the following nautical tattoos:
- Nautical Stars
- "Hold Fast" Knuckle Tattoos
- Sea Creatures (Sharks, Octopuses, Stingrays, Turtles, and More)
- Pirates, Ships, Ship's Wheel, Compass Roses, Jolly Roger Flags, and Anchors
- Rooster-and-Pig Feet Tattoos
- Links to More Nautical Tattoo Ideas
Nautical Star Tattoo Designs
The "nautical" star is a symbol typically associated with sailors and is an extremely popular tattoo design. It is usually depicted as a five-pointed star in alternating shades of dark and light colors in the same pattern found on compasses and old nautical charts and maps.
What does a nautical star tattoo mean?
Sailors originally favored the star tattoo design because of the importance of the compass. Being lost at sea was a real danger in those days. A tattoo of a nautical star was believed to help the wearer always find their way home.
Superstitious sailors found that a nautical star tattoo gave them a sense of security when facing the dangers and uncertainty of traveling on the dangerous seas.
These days, many people choose the nautical star just because it is an attractive and retro, attractive, tattoo symbol.
Some are familiar with the importance this symbol held for sailors in the early days of exploration and travel. Some people choose this symbol because they like the idea of always being able to find their way home. For some, it is a reminder to follow your dreams because the star will help you to find your way home.
Getting a Nautical Star Tattoo
The mermaid tattoo symbol has its origins in the early 1300s. Today, it is believed that sailors who brought back tales of seeing mermaids on rocks in the ocean were hallucinating when they went out to sea for long stretches and they were actually seeing manatees on the rocks. Manatees are as large as humans, and it is believed that the sailors mistook them for women.
What does a mermaid tattoo mean?
A mermaid tattoo was said to bring luck to a sailor if he happened to fall overboard.
Mermaids were said to be beautiful creatures with irresistible voices that could entrance any sailor within earshot. It was said that anyone coming into contact with a mermaid would fall under her spell.
You can also think of mermaid tattoos as being the first pin-up tattoo design. To see more, read Mermaid Tattoo Design Ideas.
"Hold Fast" Knuckle Tattoos
A popular tattoo with sailors back in the 1700s and 1800s is the phrase "Hold Fast." Soldiers would sometimes incorporate it as part of a larger tattooed image and also liked to have the two words spread across their knuckles: HOLD on one hand and FAST on the other. This remains popular even today.
Hand and finger tattoos are a less popular choice because some workplaces prefer not to see visible tattoos, but "Hold Fast" is also often tattooed on the chest and back.
What does "hold fast" mean?
The term “Hold Fast” is an old-school traditional design. On a ship, a rope is “fast” when is it firmly secured, so "hold fast" means hold tight or maintain control. The original meaning was a superstitious wish for sailors. This tattoo represented a desire to keep their hands from slipping on the lines when they worked on deck during stormy weather when they had to hold fast to the rigging on the ship for security.
Sea Creature Tattoos
The octopus is a mysterious sea creature that stars in many nautical legends and folklore. The shape of the octopus lends itself to tattoo work in a most attractive way. The arms and tentacles allow artists to wrap the octopus around shoulders and legs very elegantly.
There's a tattoo artist named Judy Parker who specializes in aquatic tattoos. I watched her put a huge mermaid tattoo on a guy's leg at a tattoo convention in Miami. She was offering discounted pricing as long as you let her do a mermaid. It was beautiful and the guy got a $1,000 tattoo for $200. He was happy and the artist was happy.
Some artists inspire so much admiration for their style that tattoo collectors are willing to let them do what they want. It frees the artist to use their creativity.
Other popular sea creatures include turtles, sharks, stingrays, and sea horses.
This design is sometimes mistakenly called a sparrow instead of a swallow.
What does a swallow tattoo represent?
The meaning and nautical importance date back to the early 1600s. It was said that swallows were used to mark milestones in a sailor's career: One swallow meant the sailor has logged a thousand miles at sea, and a second swallow meant the sailor had logged ten thousand miles.
Other meanings documented say that some sailors believed that getting swallow tattoos inked on their chests would ensure their spirit would reach heaven if they perished at sea.
Pirates, Ships, Ship's Wheel, Compass Roses, Jolly Roger Flags, and Anchors
These may not be quite as popular as traditional swallows and mermaids, but pirates and pirate ships make for a striking tattoo. There have been some beautiful compositions created as entire back pieces that incorporate a pirate ship as the central focus.
These nautical images—pirate ships and anchors—tend to be more popular with men. Nautical stars and most other nautical images are quite popular with both sexes. The Pirates of the Caribbean brought a resurgence in popularity of the pirate tattoo because so many people love Johnny Depp.
Rooster-and-Pig Feet Tattoos
These tattoos are traditionally placed on top of the feet as you see in the picture below.
Why are pig-and-rooster tattoos considered nautical?
Both of these animals have a fear of the water and can’t swim. To a sailor, these tattoos represented a fear of drowning at sea. It was believed that the tattoo of the two animals would prevent the sailor from sinking and would speed him back to land quickly.
The rooster-and-pig design is one of the rarest nautical tattoos, but I think it’s very cute. Especially when people get them on top of the feet on the traditional part of the body.
For More Nautical Tattoo Ideas
Most Popular Nautical Designs
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