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Ship Tattoos: Design Ideas and Meanings

Richard Hale is a tattoo enthusiast who studies and researches tattoo symbolism, meanings, and history.

Boat tattoo meanings

Boat tattoo meanings

Ship Tattoo Meaning

Nautical tattoos have a long history of popularity among sailors and other seafaring professions. Though traditionally worn by men, these days women are just as likely to sport them. They may be portrayed with a variety of different elements and symbols, including pirates, swords, ship wheels, anchors, stars, and compasses. Although they can be done in any size, due to shading and detail, they usually end up being medium to large. They're not considered to be a mainstream design, but they are always popular and can represent far more than just the ocean.

Creative example

Creative example

History of the Sailor Tattoo

When it comes to nautical body art, the ship ranks among the best and most popular. Sailors' tattoos were one of the things that identified them and made them unique. For sailors and fishermen, it represents their way of life, their way of being. They depend on the oceans to survive and take care of their families. In some sense, the ship tattoo is a symbol of this.

Many cultures have long histories of tattoo art, but in European culture, the seafaring lifestyle developed its own unique style of tattooing. The tradition can be traced back to the 1700s when Captain James Cook visited the Maori of the South Pacific. Since then, the inked-up sailor has become almost a stereotype, and his tattoos were often quite racy, perhaps to give the sailor something to look at during long voyages.

By the 19th century, about 90% of all sailors in the US Navy sailors had tattoos. Later, the US government said that anyone with an obscene tat would be barred from the navy, a declaration that sent many young men straight to the tattoo parlor. After all, if having a beautiful naked woman inked on your arm meant you did not have to join the navy, that was a no-brainer.

Because they are so constantly exposed to the elements, sailors often also incorporate religious symbols as superstitious protection from harm to appease the gods and avoid the wrath of mother nature. "Old school" designs—with images like anchors, swallows, scantily-clad girls in sailor hats, and dice—are often associated with sailors. It is also common for sailors to have their vessels or tour ships tattooed on them. The old-school ship design has been particularly popular among sailors, fishermen, and others associated with the open waters since the 1930s and 1940s.

Although they fell out of style for several decades, these old school designs are enjoying a renaissance in popularity among young people today, as ship tattoos are chosen by people from all walks of life. Even men and women who have no association with the waters choose them for symbolic purposes or for decorative body art. When done well, these designs are absolutely stunning and can hold deep symbolic meaning for anyone.

Our ship of fate, which recent storms have threatened to destroy, has come safely to harbor at last.

— Sophocles

The Sailing Ship

The most popular nautical design is the sailing ship. These tattoos can be designed to look realistic or like a cartoon; sometimes with just a few sails, and sometimes with many. Some are extremely detailed while others look very stylistic or abstract. Most include the water and waves, but some don't. They can also have ropes, flags, anchors, bow figureheads, crows' nests, or other details. Some have billowing sails, while others depict empty masts. They might include birds, lighthouses, rocks, mermaids, storms, sirens, the sun or moon, or possibly a coastal landscape.

You will have to think about what you want to add to your design to make it meaningful and truly personal, so take the time to view as many examples as possible when you research. This will give you a better idea of what all is available, plus you can use them as inspiration to make your own innovations.

Traditional sailing ship

Traditional sailing ship

Next to sailboats, Navy vessels and vintage boats are also popular. Navy vessels are usually chosen by those who served or are currently serving. They can include anything associated with the Navy or the US, though it's common for a member of the Navy to have an exact replica of their current or former tour vessel.

Vintage ship tattoos usually portray an early vessel that was used at the beginning of sailing. One popular variation of this is the pirate ship. The Jolly Roger, also known as the famous black and white skull and cross bones, is usually portrayed in such tattoos. They can be designed on the water or upon clouds, which would represent a pirate ghost ship.

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So it's home again, and home again, America for me!

My heart is turning home again and there I long to be,

In the land of youth and freedom, beyond the ocean bars,

Where the air is full of sunlight and the flag is full of stars.

— Henry Van Dyke

Meanings and Symbols

Meanings can vary depending on which vessel you choose. In the end, your tattoo symbolizes what you want it to. Here is a list of the most common meanings:

  • Home
  • New journey
  • New beginning
  • Good luck
  • Being immersed in nature
  • Way of life
  • Independence
  • Self-sufficiency
  • Honor
  • Bravery
  • Direction
  • Troubled past
  • Life's challenges

They can also serve as a memorial for friends and loved ones lost at sea or lost in our lives. This is a way to honor someone who lived on or near the open sea. Perhaps the person has no connection to the sea but you simply want to use a ship as a memorial.

As you can see, these designs can vary from one person to the next. Some believe it represents life's troubled waters. Somehow and someway, we make it through to calmer times. For some, it represents the idea that you carry your world with you through the storm. Maybe trouble and turmoil have been a part of your life lately and you want to embark on a new journey. The ship can symbolize this.

Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing, only a signal shown, and a distant voice in the darkness; So on the ocean of life, we pass and speak one another, only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.

— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

There are a lot of ways to personalize a ship tattoo.

There are a lot of ways to personalize a ship tattoo.

Personalizing Your Tattoo

You can add any maritime symbol to your design. Some common ones include the compass, anchor, nautical star, and swallow. An anchor can symbolize home or stability, while a star or compass symbolizes direction and faith.

Another interesting design portrays the vessel in a framed picture. Others use elements of nature (like clouds, water, rocks, landscape, rain, etc.) as a frame. A ship inside a bottle might hold deep significance for you.

Ask yourself about what your ship means to you. Is it sailing or sinking? What figurehead would you like to put on the bow to guide you through? Does the vessel have a name? If so, consider having that name "painted" on your tattoo.

A ship in port is safe, but that's not what ships are built for.

— Grace Hopper

Inspirational Quotes

Many place an inspirational quote within the tattoo, perhaps on a banner. These metaphors and quotes may be associated with the waters and sailing, but some may not. If your dad was a sailor and he has passed, you may consider including the word "DAD" on a banner. You may want to choose a famous quote or saying, such as "only the good die young" or "forever in my heart." Some quotes and sayings may be associated with sailing or the ocean, such as "ride the wave of life."

Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board.

— Zora Neale Hurston

Before You Get Inked

There are some important things that you need to remember before you get your tattoo. First, make sure that you take the time to do research. Make sure that you fully understand what your design represents and stands for. Don't rush to get inked! Those who do usually have regrets later on down the road. If you are not completely sure, don't do it. Take your time and make the correct choice the first time around.

We may have all come on different ships, but we're in the same boat now.

— Martin Luther King, Jr.


Richard Ricky Hale (author) from West Virginia on July 28, 2012:











Thank you all for your comments, time, and votes. I really appreciate all of you taking the time to drop by. Nell and KJ, LOL. Ship tattoos look great, especially the sailing ship. There is a lot you can do with them. This would be a design that I would consider for sure.

kjforce from Florida on July 25, 2012:

thelyricwriter...another great hub..full of interesting information...with my luck though I would get a " ship tattoo " and it would probably hit a love handle and sink !!!! seriously you are doing a great job...

Nell Rose from England on July 25, 2012:

Love these! I have a thing about ships, especially the old ones. I have a 19th century cutter I think it is on my bedroom window ledge! in my last life I was a pirate! haha! if reincarnation is true, then yes I was! seriously these are lovely tattoos, and no I can't get one because my arms are too small! lol! voted up! cheers nell

Gypsy Rose Lee from Daytona Beach, Florida on July 25, 2012:

Ricky these are fantastic. Love those ships and colors.

Dianna Mendez on July 24, 2012:

These have come a long way from the simple anchors and crossbones. The one down the side of the woman is amazing.

Aurelio Locsin from Orange County, CA on July 24, 2012:

One thing all these designs have in common is the amount of detail. So I imagine, the bigger, the better. Voting this Up and Beautiful.

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on July 24, 2012:

Wow, The one covering the entire hip is remarkable. I wonder if Sailors still have ship tattoos? My Sister's husband had one. Thank's..

Gail Sobotkin from South Carolina on July 24, 2012:

These ship tattoos are amazingly detailed and intricate and it was interesting to read about the symbolism and history of them.

I am also amazed by the comprehensive way you are covering the many different types of tattoos in this series and the abundance of photos and information. Anyone considering getting a tattoo would do well to review this series carefully before making a decision as it might help them know the variety of images that can be drawn and also how others may perceive the symbolism behind what they've chosen.

Voted up across the board except for funny.

Hub Hugs,


Frank Atanacio from Shelton on July 24, 2012:

wow these are so cool I really do love ships... great hub my friend...:) Frank

BeyondMax from Sydney, Australia on July 24, 2012:

Wow. these ones are humongous! It really does add a perspective =)

snowdrops from The Second Star to the Right on July 23, 2012:

Oh wow, they're reall want ship tattoos? I never seen one before. it kinda looks scary, im so scared of big ships and deep waters :)

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