Peony is a tattooed tattoo enthusiast who loves studying and discussing tattoo history and meanings. Japanese themes are her favorite.
Traditional American nautical tattoos have a long history behind them. If you want a maritime tattoo for yourself, check out the meanings and history, and you might find some informative gold nuggets.
History of the Nautical Tattoo
Dating back as far as the 16th century, sailors sported tattoos (called "tatus" in the Polynesian language) and brought these tribal "souvenirs" from the Pacific islands back to Europe. Later on, in the 17th century, written records (namely Captain John Cook’s diary) spoke about the tattoos that were observed on indigenous people.
Back in the day, sailors actually tattooed each other and had to make do with what they had. They presumably used gunpowder and urine for ink.
Nautical Tattoo Symbolism
A large portion of maritime 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
- Talismans used to ward off back luck
Many maritime men were superstitious and you could hardly blame them for that. Work revolved around the unpredictable elements, and their lives were, therefore, always under luck's mercy. To stay safe, many sailors wore images on their bodies that they believed would ward off bad luck and bring them good luck.
Nautical Tattoo Meanings: Milestones
- Swallow: These blue birds are sometimes confused with sparrows, but they are actually completely different birds. Each swallow represents 5000 nautical miles traveled, which is about 5,754 regular miles.
- Anchor: In the Navy, sailors get an anchor tattoo after successfully crossing and returning from the Atlantic Ocean. An anchor is also the most secure object on the ship, so its image serves as an icon of stability and unfaltering faith. Sometimes you will see "MOM" or "DAD" written across the anchor in a banner because mom and dad are both reasons for staying grounded. You might also see a sweetheart's name as well.
- Dragon: This signifies that the sailor has served in a station in China or has sailed to a Chinese port.
- Golden Dragon: A golden dragon represents crossing the International Date Line (an imaginary line on the surface of the earth that follows, for the most part, the 180th meridian).
- Fully Rigged Ship: This tattoo is for having sailed around the torrential waters of Cape Horn. A fully rigged ship is one with three or more fully deployed masts.
- Shellback Turtle: This is sometimes used interchangeably with King Neptune. The tattoo commemorates a sailor who has crossed the equator and been initiated into King Neptune's Court, a line-crossing ceremony for Navy members who cross the equator for the first time. (Suggested by commenter “Kuran” Thank you!)
Nautical Tattoo Meanings: Luck
- HOLD FAST: To hold fast means to hold onto the lines fast when the ship is aloft in bad weather, so sailors would not be thrown off. These words served as a special reminder to hold on and persevere during tough times.
- Pig and Rooster: These animals were usually tattooed on the feet or behind the ankles. They traditionally symbolized survival from a shipwreck, and superstitious sailors also believed that they were symbols of protection from drowning. This belief originated from the fact that both animals were often kept in wooden crates on board, and, when a ship capsized, these crates would most likely get washed up to shore. If a pig was tattooed on the left knee and a rooster on the right foot, then the tattoo represented an old saying: “Pig on the knee, safety at sea. A cock on the right, never lose a fight."
- Twin Propellers: Twin propellers, one tattooed on each butt cheek, were said to prevent drowning, as they were meant to "propel" you ashore.
- Nautical Star: A nautical star tattoo represents the North Star, traditionally used for navigations out at sea. Sailors often got tattoos of nautical stars or "compass stars" for superstitious reasons, hoping that the star would help guide their way through the night and get them home safely. It is now a symbol of protection, guidance, and good luck. Some see nautical stars as a symbolic reminder for creating one's own path or navigating through a certain point in one's life. The nautical star tattoo has now become popular among Navy Seal and Coast Guard members. The nautical star tattoo is usually rendered as a five-pointed star with alternating colors to mimic the colors on the compass rose found on nautical charts. A plain compass tattoo was also popular and carried the same meaning as a nautical star tattoo.
- Swallow: Because swallows were known for their long migration patterns where they travel long distances from home and then back again, a swallow tattoo meant that 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 after death (it was believed that birds could carry souls of the departed to heaven). Most people incorporate this blue bird tattoo with another sailor tattoo design, such as having a blue swallow standing on an anchor.
Memento Mori Nautical Tattoo
- Dagger Through a Swallow: A dagger through a swallow signified a lost comrade.
Sailor's Identification Tattoos
- Crossed Anchors: Crossed anchors tattooed in the web of the hand (between the thumb and index finger) were a mark of being a Boatswain Mate, someone who managed all activities relating to marlinspike, deck, boat seamanship, painting, upkeep of ship's external structure, rigging, deck equipment, and boats. Sailors could have it done on the left hand, meaning they had sailed all the oceans, or on the right, meaning they had sailed the Seven Seas.
- Harpoon: This identifies a member of the Fishing Fleet.
- Dolphin: Representing members of the Navy Submarine force (The dolphin is a Submarine Warfare Insignia). (Suggested by commenter “Madkahar” Thank you!)
- Polar Bear: Denotes a Blue Nose sailor, a coveted line-crossing certification and ceremony whereby maritime personnel who’d crossed the Arctic Circle (Northern Domain of the Polar Bear) are awarded. This rite of passage is also known to be a rare opportunity to come by. A polar Bear colored in gold to denotes a surfacing submarine above the fifth parallel, or ice walk [sic] in the arctic. (Suggested by commenter “Madkahar” Thank you!)
- Rope: A rope around the wrist is a mark of being a deckhand, currently or previously. A deckhand is someone who maintains the hull, decks, superstructure, mooring, and cargo handling on a ship.
- Guns or Cross Cannons: Crossed Rifles indicates a member of the Infantry Army while Crossed Cannons refers to a Naval Gunner's Mate—they are normally done as a piece with navy themes in the background or placed where a Boatswain Mate would get their crossed anchors on their hands. (Additional info by commenter “OLD Navy” and “Deck SN” Thank you!)
- Anchor: A single anchor represented the Merchant Marine, a civilian fleet that carried military goods. During World War II, the Merchant Marine entered the war even before the U.S. military joined because they were attacked by a German submarine while delivering war supplies to Britain as part of the Lend-Lease agreement.
Little Red Devils: Symbolic to a Snipe—a term for enlisted men working in “The Pit” or the engine rooms and machinery spaces in the mid-19th century. These men include (broadly): technicians, engineers, control-man, firefighters, machinists and electricians. Back then, Snipes would work on coal-fed steam engines, and due to the atrociously high temperatures of their working space, The Pit was likened to the fiery depths of hell (also fitting since they were located at the bottom of the vessel). The Little Red Devils were a direct representation of Snipes who were very much, “rulers of the Underworld”. (Suggested by commenter “Jim Lynch” Thank you!)
Modern Nautical Polar Bear Tattoo
Tattoo of Girls for Sailors
- Pin-Up Girls: Life at sea meant leaving behind loved ones, such as wives and girlfriends. The girls tattooed on these men were a reminder of the ladies that waited for their safe return back home.
- Mermaids: These half-women, 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 with it.
- Hula Girls: Hula girls were usually inked on sailors who had been to Hawaii.
Old School Nautical Tattoo Artists and Ideas
Hopefully, the meanings above inspire you and will help you pick out a symbol that resonates best with you and what you're trying to convey with your tattoo. You could then tell your tattoo artist about the icons you'd like in your overall piece. They might have a creative design in mind for an image composition.
If you're looking for some examples, try researching the works of:
- Franklin Paul Rogers
- August “Cap” Coleman
- Norman "Sailor Jerry" Collins
These dudes are the leading pioneers of American traditional tattoos and the tattoo culture in general. They have some really rad old school tattoo designs that you can draw inspiration from.
Nautical Tattoos From Other Countries
- Celtic Sailor's Knot: This ancient tattoo, also called a Celtic Cross, depicted two intertwined knots and symbolized the affection and devotion between a sailor and his lover.
- Polynesian Tribal Tattoos: These designs mimic the currents of the sea and sometimes incorporate sea animals, like sharks and whales.
Modern Nautical Shoulder Tattoo
You Might Also Like:
- Japanese Hannya Tattoos: Origins, Meanings & Ideas
- Tattoo Ideas & Tips: Text, Lettering, Script & Quotes
Questions & Answers
Question: I'm researching US tattoo art from the 1860's...any site you'd suggest for photos or design-books from that era?
Answer: The National Archives is a great place for historical info and photos.
© 2012 Peony
Peony (author) on June 10, 2018:
@NateB11 - Thank you! Hope you enjoyed reading about it.
Nathan Bernardo from California, United States of America on June 09, 2018:
Very interesting, I didn't know the history or meanings to tattoos.
Lt on April 07, 2018:
Is there a Circumnavigation tatoo
Peony (author) on February 08, 2018:
@OLD Navy - Thank you so much for that additional info, I'll include that in the article!
OLD Navy on February 04, 2018:
Crossed Rifles is infantry Army , Crossed cannons is a gunnersmate Navy
Peony (author) on December 14, 2017:
@Jim Lynch, @Deck SN - Thank you for your input, there's so many symbolical references. I'll always update this piece with new info, so I thank everyone who's commented to contribute to this ever-growing list! Especially to those who are seamen themselves! Much appreciated, kudos to you guys :—)
Peony (author) on December 14, 2017:
@Madkahar - Thank you for those, you rock!
Madkahar on March 31, 2017:
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.
Will on December 10, 2016:
Jim I respect your words, I rescued friends from the fire room of the frank cable. Still have night mares
Deck SN on June 04, 2016:
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.
Jim Lynch on May 08, 2016:
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.
Peony (author) on December 07, 2015:
@ Green Art - You're welcome! I'm glad this article shared some insight (:
@ Larry Rankin - Thanks for thinking so!
Laura Ross on December 03, 2015:
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 from Oklahoma on July 01, 2015:
I don't have any tattoos yet, but I enjoy learning about tattoo history and symbolism.
Peony (author) on April 04, 2015:
@ 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 (:
Kuran on March 29, 2015:
Don't forget about a turtle or "Shellback" for sailors who crossed the equator
Nick on February 20, 2015:
I'm a seafarer also... First place I've seen a sparrow represent 5000 nautical miles traveled instead of the swollow
Ivan on February 07, 2015:
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 from Midland MI on January 29, 2015:
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.
Peony (author) on June 16, 2014:
@ Daniel Collison - You're welcome, I'm happy this article provided some insights.
Daniel Collison on June 14, 2014:
I wondered what made my grandfather get the tattoo's he had on him, this article explains a lot. thanks.
Peony (author) on April 30, 2014:
@ 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 (:
Paul on April 29, 2014:
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.
Peony (author) on March 01, 2014:
@ 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 from India on February 20, 2014:
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. :)
katoch on February 14, 2014:
great post you can vist this site from NASA
NRCollins on February 01, 2014:
Peony (author) on August 14, 2012:
@ 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 (;
Peony (author) on August 14, 2012:
@ 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.
Peony (author) on August 14, 2012:
@ kittythedreamer - Thank you, glad you enjoyed reading it (:
Peony (author) on August 14, 2012:
@ Jeff Gamble - Thanks! Yeah, having great ink is sick, but to know the meanings behind these Art makes it even sweeter.
Amanda from Mississippi on August 13, 2012:
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.
Sasha Kim on August 13, 2012:
I love the meanings for the different tattoos, great job Peony!
Kitty Fields from Summerland on August 13, 2012:
Wonderful tattoo hub. Great job!
Jeff Gamble from Denton, Texas on August 13, 2012:
Great article, the story behind these common images is interesting.