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Traditional Nautical Sailor Tattoos: Meanings, Origins, & Ideas

Updated on November 30, 2016


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.

Tattoo Meanings


  • Swallow—Each swallow represents 5000 nautical miles traveled.

Swallows and an anchor incorporated into a larger tatttoo
Swallows and an anchor incorporated into a larger tatttoo | Source
  • 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.

"Hold fast" is a reference to holding onto the lines of a ship during a storm.
"Hold fast" is a reference to holding onto the lines of a ship during a storm. | Source
  • 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.

Swallows are known for traveling great distances and finding their way home.
Swallows are known for traveling great distances and finding their way home. | Source

Memento Mori

  • 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?

See results

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.

Norman Keith Collins, AKA Sailor Jerry, helped turn nautical tattoos into an art form.
Norman Keith Collins, AKA Sailor Jerry, helped turn nautical tattoos into an art form. | Source

© 2012 Peony


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    • Madkahar profile image

      Madkahar 5 months ago

      Couple others:

      Dolphin fish: which represents the submarine force.

      Polar Bear: Blue Nose sailor (those sailors that traveled above the fifth parallel. (Bear colored in gold to denote a surfacing submarine above the fifth parallel, or ice walk in the arctic)

      Rock of Gibraltar: For traversing the mediterranean thru the Straits of Gibraltar.

      There are quite a few others but these are the ones I remember from my service time.

    • profile image

      Will 9 months ago

      Jim I respect your words, I rescued friends from the fire room of the frank cable. Still have night mares

    • profile image

      Deck SN 15 months ago

      Crossed cannons also represent the GM (Gunners Mate) rating. They normally get it done as a piece with navy themes in the background or the same place a BM would get their crossed anchors on their hands.

    • profile image

      Jim Lynch 16 months ago

      I was hoping to see a Snipe tattoo. The little red devil tattoo became the symbol for those working in the fire rooms and machinery spaces of 20 century ships.

    • P FOR PEONY profile image

      Peony 21 months ago

      @ Green Art - You're welcome! I'm glad this article shared some insight (:

      @ Larry Rankin - Thanks for thinking so!

    • Green Art profile image

      Green Art 21 months ago

      Great hub! My step-dad was in the navy during WWII and had two blue bird tattoos on his chest. I often wondered why birds, now I know. Thanks

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 2 years ago from Oklahoma

      I don't have any tattoos yet, but I enjoy learning about tattoo history and symbolism.

      Fascinating hub!

    • P FOR PEONY profile image

      Peony 2 years ago

      @ Leland Johnson - Thank you so much for the kind words! I'd imagine that there would have still been some who'd thought that tattoos were impermanent, but I'm pretty sure they'd still do it either way.

      @ Ivan - I hope this hub has helped you better understand (:

      @ Nick - Thanks for pointing that out! Sparrows and Swallows have very different meanings, totally saw past that blunder. Edited!

      @ Kuran - Thank you for that input, I've included your little reminder (:

    • profile image

      Kuran 2 years ago

      Don't forget about a turtle or "Shellback" for sailors who crossed the equator

    • profile image

      Nick 2 years ago

      I'm a seafarer also... First place I've seen a sparrow represent 5000 nautical miles traveled instead of the swollow

    • profile image

      Ivan 2 years ago

      For me as a seaman is interesting to know the back ground storys because now im zhinking of getting some of these tattoos.

    • Leland Johnson profile image

      Leland Johnson 2 years ago from Midland MI

      What an interesting article! Well written and illustrated. Question- Do you know if sailors from the 16th century understood that the tattoos were permanent, or did some assume they would wash off over time? Thanks for writing this excellent article.

    • P FOR PEONY profile image

      Peony 3 years ago

      @ Daniel Collison - You're welcome, I'm happy this article provided some insights.

    • Daniel Collison profile image

      Daniel Collison 3 years ago

      I wondered what made my grandfather get the tattoo's he had on him, this article explains a lot. thanks.

    • P FOR PEONY profile image

      Peony 3 years ago

      @ Paul - You're very much welcomed, and thank you for commenting! Ah, that's awesome, much respect to the people who're serving the country. I'm very glad to have helped and I hope your next tattoo turns out beautifully (:

    • profile image

      Paul 3 years ago

      Very informative, thank you. I myself have served in the navy for 5 years now and it's always great to understand different types of old naval tradition such as tattooing. I have already had a squid/anchor piece done on my forearm and was specifically looking for "milestone" related tattoos because I've already met the criteria for a few of them and this has helped me understand and verify my findings.

      Thank you!

    • P FOR PEONY profile image

      Peony 3 years ago

      @ NRCollins & katoch - Thanks!

      @ Cherylann Mollan - That's great! I try to update this article whenever I come across something new. It's amazing how meaningful they are (:

    • Cherylann Mollan profile image

      Cherylann Mollan 3 years ago from India

      This is a really nice hub. I've been thinking about getting an anchor done as my second tattoo. Happy to know that I got the symbolism right. Didn't know about the 'Nautical Star' though. Will check that out. :)

    • profile image

      katoch 3 years ago

      great post you can vist this site from NASA

    • NRCollins profile image

      NRCollins 3 years ago

      Great hub!

    • P FOR PEONY profile image

      Peony 5 years ago

      @ Semi-There - I do too, haha! I think for some people, they just get it for the aesthetic purpose without a clue as to what they symbolize. It's fine though, whatever floats their boat (;

    • P FOR PEONY profile image

      Peony 5 years ago

      @ Mama Kim 8 - Thank you! Aren't they interesting? When you don't understand the stories behind them some might not make much sense (like the pig and rooster), but once you do it, everything just falls into place.

    • P FOR PEONY profile image

      Peony 5 years ago

      @ kittythedreamer - Thank you, glad you enjoyed reading it (:

    • P FOR PEONY profile image

      Peony 5 years ago

      @ Jeff Gamble - Thanks! Yeah, having great ink is sick, but to know the meanings behind these Art makes it even sweeter.

    • Semi-There profile image

      Amanda 5 years ago from Mississippi

      Interesting! I love reading about things like this. I always find myself thinking about what common tattoos mean and if the people that are wearing them know.

    • Mama Kim 8 profile image

      Sasha Kim 5 years ago

      I love the meanings for the different tattoos, great job Peony!

    • kittythedreamer profile image

      Nicole Canfield 5 years ago from the Ether

      Wonderful tattoo hub. Great job!

    • Jeff Gamble profile image

      Jeff Gamble 5 years ago from Denton, Texas

      Great article, the story behind these common images is interesting.