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 outlined here and you might find some informative gold nuggets.
History of Sailor Tattoos
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 in the 17th century, written records (namely Captain John Cook’s diary) spoke about the tattoos that were observed on people he saw during his travels around the world from 1768 to 1771.
Back in the day, sailors tattooed each other and had to make do with the tools they had. They presumably used gunpowder and urine for ink.
Nautical Tattoo Symbolism
Most maritime tattoos were. . .
- mementos used to mark a milestone in a sailor’s voyage
- symbols of patriotism
- reminders of places they've set foot, experiences, or triumphs
- talismans used to ward off back luck
Many sailors were superstitious, and you could hardly blame them for that. Their work involved dealing with unpredictable weather and elements, and their lives were always dependent upon luck and nature's mercy. To stay safe, many sailors wore images on their bodies that they believed would ward off bad luck and bring them good fortune.
Nautical Tattoo Meanings: Milestones
- Swallow: Each tattooed swallow represents 5000 nautical miles traveled, which is about 5,754 land miles. These blue birds are sometimes confused with sparrows, but they are a completely different species.
- Anchor: In the navy, sailors get an anchor tattoo after successfully crossing and returning across the Atlantic Ocean. An anchor is also the most secure object on the ship—and the object used for securing 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 parents might also be reasons for staying grounded. You might also see a sweetheart's name inked on the anchor's banner.
- Dragon: A dragon signifies that the sailor has served at a station in China or has sailed to a Chinese port.
- Golden Dragon: A golden dragon represents crossing the International Date Line (the virtual line from the north to the south pole that defines the boundary between calendar dates, a line that, for the most part, follows the 180th meridian).
- Fully Rigged Ship: This tattoo represents 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 symbol is sometimes used interchangeably with King Neptune. This 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.
Lucky Nautical Tattoo Symbols
- "Hold Fast": To "hold fast" means to hold tightly onto the lines while the ship is being tossed in bad weather. These words served as a special reminder to hold on and persevere during tough times.
- Pig and Rooster: If a pig was tattooed on the left knee and a rooster on the right foot, then the tattoo represented the old saying: “Pig on the knee, safety at sea. A cock on the right, never lose a fight." 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 because 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.
- 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 at sea. Sailors often got tattoos of nautical stars (or "compass stars") for superstitious reasons, hoping that the stars would guide them through the night and get them home safely. A nautical star is now a symbol of protection, guidance, and good luck. Some see them as symbolic reminders for or aids in forging one's own path or navigating through certain points in one's life. The nautical star tattoo has now become popular among Navy Seals and Coast Guard members. It is usually rendered as a five-pointed star with alternating colors to mimic the colors on the compass rose found on nautical charts.
- Compass: A plain compass tattoo was also popular and carried the same meaning as a nautical star tattoo (see above).
- Swallow: Like homing pigeons, swallows have an uncanny knack for finding home. Because swallows often have large migration patterns in which they travel long distances, a swallow tattoo meant that no matter how far you journeyed, you would always be able to find your way home. In a larger sense, going "home" could mean returning to your family or being called home to God after death. It was believed that birds could carry or guide the souls of the departed to heaven.
Read More from Tatring
Sailor's Symbols and 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. If sailors had crossed anchors tattooed on their left hand, it signified they had sailed all the oceans—if on the right, it meant they had sailed all Seven Seas.
- Harpoon: This identifies a member of the fishing fleet.
- Polar Bear: A rare symbol denoting a Blue Nose sailor, a coveted line-crossing certification and ceremony whereby maritime personnel who cross the Arctic Circle (Northern Domain of the Polar Bear) are recognized. A gold polar bear denotes a surfacing submarine above the fifth parallel.
- 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. This tattoo can represent "holding fast" to the lines during a storm.
- Single 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.
- Dagger Through a Swallow: A dagger through a swallow signified a lost comrade (a memento mori tattoo).
Navy and Naval Tattoo Symbols
- Dolphin: Representing members of the US Navy submarine force (the dolphin is a submarine warfare insignia).
- 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!)
- King Neptune: Depicted when a sailor has been initiated into King Neptune's Court for Navy members who cross the equator for the first time.
- Little Red Devils: These devils symbolize "snipes," a term for enlisted men working in the lowest engine rooms and machinery spaces. Back in the mid-19th century, 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. The Little Red Devils were very much the “rulers of the Underworld.” These workers included (broadly): technicians, engineers, controlmen, firefighters, machinists, and electricians.
Old School Sailor Jerry Nautical Tattoos
Old School Nautical Tattoo Artists and Ideas
Above, you'll find a gallery of old-school nautical flash. If you're looking for more examples of old school nautical tattoos, 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 Cultures
- 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.
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 women who waited for their safe return back home.
- Mermaids: These half-human, half-fish creatures were said to seduce sailors into the sea to their eventual death by luring them with enchanting songs (aka siren songs). Mermaids were used as a symbol for how enticing and dangerous the sea was, even to seasoned sailors.
- Hula Girls: Hula girls were usually inked on sailors who had been to Hawaii.
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.
Aloe 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.