Long before the age of paper certificates, a sailor tattoo served as their proficiency and competency documents (COP and COC in the modern era). While ours are printed on paper, theirs, on the other hand, are marks of a lifetime.
Traditional seamen look at their tattoos very differently. The indelible marks are not just a form of art but are also a reminder of their milestones, ranks, struggles, and failures. Tattoos tell of superstitions and significant events in life.
From anchors, birds, and crossed cannons, to stars and dragons, these designs symbolize meaning relevant to every sailor and navy’s experience.
However, they are slowly forgotten by modern sailors.
History of a Sailor’s Tattoo
Tribal villages were already using tattoos for many centuries long before the early mariners.
It was not until the 17th century that Captain James Cook and his crew visited the Polynesian islands in the South Pacific.
On that excursion, they noticed strange markings on the skins of the indigenous people. Since sailors love to take souvenirs from each visited port, they decided to get tattoos as a memento.
It slowly became “a thing” for our old shipmates and once again became very prevalent during World War II when navy sailors inked their skins for a good luck charm during the war.
Today, If you happen to sail in Hawaii, try to get yourself a hula girl tattoo. It signifies your visit to that island, as well as a reminding mark that traces back to the first sailor tattoos.
The connection between tattoos and sailors was quickly established not out of fashion but due to beliefs.
Being exposed to uncertain and often unforgiving elements of the sea, our old sea-dogs learned to ink their skin with images they believed would increase their survivability.
Not only that, they trust that these tattoos would ward off bad luck and bring good luck to their voyage.
And good luck is everything if you’ve been to sea for quite some time.
Since then, tattoo designs rapidly evolved. New symbols were introduced with an accompanying message.
Because of superstitions, early sailors began trusting these markings as protective talismans.
Tattoos also indicate a seaman’s journey. Since it’s hard to keep and collect loose souvenirs from foreign lands, a figure known to a certain place would never get lost once inked in your skin.
Tattoos as Their Seaman’s Book
Our modern seaman’s book contains a summary of our sea service, rank, and experience.
Just by looking at tattoos, early mariners can tell where a sailor has been and how many miles he traveled.
Sailors, at the constant mercy of the elements, often feel the need for religious images on their bodies to appease the angry powers that caused storms and drowning far from home.
— Tattoo Archives
Did he visit the Orient? Was he around Cape Horn? Is he still holding on with his girlfriend or wife?
Moreover, they can tell what type of vessel he’s working with whether in the navy or in fishing boats.
In those early days, a sailor tattoo tells stories by itself without uttering a single word.
How cool is that when you are in a bar packed with fellow salties coming from all around the world and you show your dragon tattoo?
Sailor Tattoo Designs and Meaning
If you need a tattoo idea for your skin, check out some of these designs which are also used by our early mariner ancestors. Having these marks not only speaks of fashion but also tells a deep history and rich traditions.
Historically, a sailor gets an anchor tattoo after crossing the Atlantic Ocean.
Since anchors hold one of the most important functions on every ship, a new meaning was added.
Anchors are used to keep vessels in position. Without them, ships would drift for eternity wherever the current and wind takes them.
Thus, sailors tattoo anchors believing that it would keep them steady on board the ship- just like what a real anchor does! Other times, anchor tattoos offered sailors the promise of going home.
It’s a reminder to keep grounded and steady on what you love and believe.
However, crossed anchors indicate a different story. A mariner having this mark signals his rank on board. It means that he is or was a Boatswain responsible for the crew and ship’s equipment.
Swallow tattoos are no joke. A sailor with this ink mark commands respect in the old seafaring days.
Legend says that a single swallow tattooed on a seaman’s body means that he had traveled 5,000 nautical miles. That’s 9,260 kilometers or the distance between New York and Alexandria, Egypt.
You might think this is not a big deal but during the 17th and 18th centuries, ships were only made of wood and powered by wind. Navigation was by means of stars, sun, compass, and sextant. It’s a real challenge for sailors.
Swallow tattoos are usually embedded on the neck and both sides of the chest. Two swallows indicate a much experienced and highly valuable sailor. It means he had traveled 10,000 nautical miles!
Since swallows return to the same location every year to mate, some sea-dogs also believe that these birds guarantee their safe return. Thus, they ink their skin with swallows at the start of their voyage and upon return.
Another legend speaks of tragedy and salvation. They say that when a sailor drowns, the swallows will carry their soul to heaven.
Just by the tattoo alone, sailors can tell whether a guy is a fresh meat or an old sea-dog. Those ink marks determine the experience and the places he has been.
A dragon tattoo signifies that a sailor had served in the Orient, particularly in China, or had sailed in any Chinese ports. No other place is quite synonymous to dragon than China.
4. Golden Dragon
A golden dragon tattoo on a sailor’s body represents crossing the International Date Line (IDL). It’s an imaginary line that roughly follows the 180th meridian.
Sailors having this kind of tattoo means that he has already traveled on the other side of the world coming from the western side of the Pacific.
The Far East was considered by Westerners as the Domain of the Golden Dragon and the 180th Meridian was the gate to that domain.
Aside from tattoos, modern sailors who had crossed this line are also given awards and certificates.
5. Fully-rigged Ship
Specifically, a fully-rigged ship tattoo with the mast count being an odd number starting at three to represent good luck.
It signifies that the seaman had successfully traversed Cape Horn.
Cape Horn is an area to be reckoned with- a burial site for unlucky mariners. It is a place between Antarctica and South America frequented by gale-force winds, terrifying waves, and icebergs.
In short, this passage is a nightmare to every sailor.
Hundreds of ships were destroyed passing this area while claiming the lives of tens of thousands of seamen because of its inherent dangers.
Thus, sailors who survived this legendary passage are proud to ink their bodies with a fully-rigged ship- the very ship they used to traverse Cape Horn.
6. Shellback Turtle
The mark has got something to do with the line-crossing ceremony. This tradition is aimed at those sailors who had never crossed the equator and thus must prove worthy of making their transition.
To show respect to the God of the Sea, these Polliwogs undergo a brutal hazing process while being summoned to Neptune’s Court. In return, King Neptune would grant them safe passage and good luck throughout their sailing life.
After passing the initiation rites, sailors can now get a Shellback Turtle tattoo as proof of crossing the equator. They are now recognized as Shellbacks, another word for Sons or Daughters of Neptune- the God of the Sea!
7. Nautical Star
North Star or the Nautical Star tattoo is the most common ink mark in the old seafaring days. It’s a highly recognizable symbol that denotes protection and guidance.
Seafarers use the heavenly bodies when navigating the seas. Wherever they go on the vast oceans, they can always rely on the North star in finding their way.
Because early sailors are highly superstitious, they tattoo the nautical star on their bodies believing that it will guide them to where they are going.
8. Compass Rose
Since the heavenly bodies can never be always available, sailors use a compass as another means of navigation. The compass, just like the nautical star, also aids them in finding their way.
Sailors with a compass tattoo believe that they will be safe during their travels until they return home.
A variation of this mark combines the nautical star and the compass rose. The meaning is still the same- guidance during their journey and protection until they reach back home.
Whenever sailors feel lost and helpless in the middle of the vast waters, these tattoos give them hope in finding the right direction.
9. Pig and Rooster
These two animals, fragile as they may seem, are one of the most celebrated tattoos of sailors.
They may look like your next meal on board but these creatures earn the respect of our old and cunning sea-dogs.
Why? Let’s talk about perils.
Whenever a shipwreck happens, most of the crew on board ends up 6 feet below the waters. But not the pigs and roosters.
Pigs and roosters are often carried on wooden crates. When a ship sinks, most of the surviving entities are guess what? Pigs and roosters!
The wooden crates served as their personal flotation device until they drift ashore. It gives them a surprisingly high survival rate than humans.
Thus, sailors believe that by tattooing a pig on one foot and a rooster on the other foot, they too will share the survivability of these creatures whenever they meet disasters at sea.
10. Hold Fast
“HOOLD FAAAST! Hold the line like your life depends on it.”
During stormy weather, the ship’s sails would part and everything would be destroyed. But our old sea-salts won’t wait for fair weather before they start fixing things up.
A rope is used to tightly secure the broken mast in the middle of the storm. They must tie something up to avoid losing it and a sailor must be the one to hold the riggings and never let go!
To give mariners a good luck charm, they tattoo their knuckles with the term “Hold Fast”.
They believe that by having these marks, the sea will give them extra strength to hold unto dear life while in the middle of the tempest.
When they are being washed away by heavy waves, these tattoos will supply them with gripping power so they won’t fall overboard.
PS. Most images are taken from Pinterest.com
Your Next Tattoo
Aside from the tattoos listed above, there are many designs you can choose from if you plan on getting one.
For example, there are many varieties of anchors, fully-rigged ships, compass rose, and many others.
To get more insightful details of tattooing those designs including their placements in your body, check out Tattoo Stylist’s Ship Tattoo Guide.
We all know that our seafaring culture is rich in tradition. These tattoo designs are part of our history as well as our lives. A sailor’s tattoo is unique due to the adventures we experience while sailing.
Unfortunately, these marks and their meanings are not solidly embraced by modern seafarers.
If you plan on getting a sailor tattoo, one that’s rich in history while identifying our line of tradition would be a great design to start.
May the winds be in your favor