Traditional Nautical Sailor Tattoos: Meanings, Origins, & Ideas
Dating back as far as the 16th century, sailors have been sporting tattoos and bringing these tribal "souvenirs" from the Pacific islands back into Europe. Later on in the 17th century, written records (namely Captain John Cook’s diary) spoke about the tattoos—or "tatus" in the native Polynesian language—that were observed on indigenous people.
Back in the day, sailors actually tattooed each other and had to make do with what they had, like gunpowder and presumably urine for ink.
- Bet You Didn't Know: It was thought that gunpowder offered the mystical powers of protection and long-life.
A large portion of these tattoos were:
- Mementos used to mark a milestone in a sailor’s voyage
- Symbols of patriotism
- Reminders of certain triumphs or places they've set foot on
However, a lot of the images used were also believed to be sailor talismans. They were trusted to ward off the bad luck and bring in the good.
Many maritime men are superstitious, and you could hardly blame them for that. Work revolved around the unpredictable elements, and their lives were therefore always under the luck's mercy. It’s always better to safe than sorry.
- Swallow—Each swallow represents 5000 nautical miles traveled.
- Anchor—In the navy, sailors would get an anchor after successfully crossing (and returning from) the Atlantic Ocean. The other representation was that an anchor, the object that secures the ship, was an icon of stable, unfaltering faith. A reason why you would sometimes see "MOM" or "DAD" written across it in a banner—they are both reasons for for staying grounded.
- Dragon—his signified that the sailor had served in a China station or sailed to a China port.
- Golden Dragon—A golden dragon represents crossing the International Date Line (an imaginary line on the surface of the earth following, for the most part, the 180th meridian).
- Fully rigged ship—This tattoo is for having sailed around Cape Horn.
- Shellback Turtle (sometimes used interchangeably with King Neptune)—Both represented a sailor who'd sailed crossed the equator.
- "HOLD FAST"—These words are a reminder to hold onto the lines fast when the ship is aloft in bad weather, so sailors would not be thrown off.
- Pig and Rooster—These animals, usually tattooed on the feet or behind the ankles, are traditionally believed to symbolize survival from a shipwreck. As both animals were often kept in wooden crates on board, when a ship capsized, these crates would float with the current and most likely get washed up to shore. Another explanation (when a pig was tattooed on the left knee and a rooster on the right foot) was, “Pig on the knee, safety at sea. A cock on the right, never lose a fight."
- Twin propellers—Twin propellers, one tattooed on each buttcheek, were said to prevent drowning, as they were meant to "propel" you ashore.
- Nautical star—This represents the North Star, traditionally used for navigations out at sea. It served as a guide and a way back home.
- Swallow—Because swallows were known for their migration patterns, the tattoo meant you would always be able to find your way home. "Home" in this sense could mean home with your family or called home to God in death—birds were believed to carry souls of the departed to heaven.
- Dagger through a swallow—A dagger through a swallow signified a lost comrade.
- Crossed anchors—Crossed anchors tattooed between the thumb and index finger were a mark of being a Boatswain Mate. Sailors could have it done on the left hand, meaning they had sailed all the oceans or the right, meaning they had sailed the Seven Seas.
- Harpoon—This identifies a member of the Fishing Fleet.
- Rope—A rope around the wrist is a mark of being a deckhand, currently or previously.
- Guns or cross cannons—These identify a member of the Military Naval Service.
- Anchor—An anchor signified a Merchant Marine.
- Pin-up girls—Life at sea meant leaving behind loved ones, such as wives and girlfriends, on land. The girls tattooed on these men were often a reminder of the ladies waiting for their safe return back home.
- Mermaids—These half-woman, half-fish creatures were said to seduce sailors into the sea to their eventual death by luring them with their enchanting songs. This was believed to be an analogy for how enticing the sea was, even to men who knew well the dangers associated.
- Hula girls—Hula girls were usually inked on sailors who'd been to Hawaii.
Betcha Didn't Know: In 1909, the Navy declared that Naval applicants with "obscene" or "indecent" tattoos (i.e. of nude ladies) will be refused, they will, however be considered after the tattoos were modified. This created a new market for tattooists who would offer to "cover up" the ladies.
Do you think that nautical tattoos should only be reserved for sailors & seamen? Does it matter?
Looking at some of the meanings above, you might like to pick out which resonates better with you and what you're trying to convey in your tattoo. You could then tell your artist the icons you'd like in your overall piece and let him plan a "flow," or image composition, for you.
If you're looking for some examples, try researching the works of:
- Franklin Paul Rogers
- August “Cap” Coleman
- Norman "Sailor Jerry" Collins
These dudes have been known to be the pioneers of American traditional tattoos.
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