Traditional Nautical Sailor Tattoos: Meanings, Origins, & Ideas
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.
Did You Know?
It was thought that gunpowder offered the mystical powers of protection and long life, which was why it was used as an ingredient in DIY tattoo inks back in the day.
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 Girlies 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.
Did You Know?
In 1909, the Navy declared that Naval applicants with "obscene" or "indecent" tattoos (i.e. of nude ladies) would be refused and would only be considered after the tattoos were modified. This created a new market for tattoo artists who used their talents to "cover up" the ladies.
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.
Do you think that nautical tattoos should only be reserved for sailors & seamen? Does it matter?
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
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Questions & Answers
I'm researching US tattoo art from the 1860's...any site you'd suggest for photos or design-books from that era?
The National Archives is a great place for historical info and photos.Helpful 4
© 2012 Peony