Types of Sailor Tattoos and Their Meanings
Sailors and fishermen have a long history of wearing tattoos. In fact, many can argue that sailors are the first group of people to truly popularize the art of tattooing within the Western World as they were the first to introduce these designs during modern times.
From the earliest adventurers in Polynesia to modern day sailors, tattoos have continually remained an important part of the culture.
The History of Sailor Tattoos
The history of sailor or fishermen tattoos can be traced back to the 1700s when Captain Hook stumbled upon the natives in the South Pacific. Impressed by their tattooed bodies, the sailors on Hook’s ship decided to get their own tattoos as a souvenir of their visit to the area. From here, the connection between sailors and tattoos was established.
The demand for potentially “obscene” sailor tattoos, however, grew when young men discovered they may provide an out for participating in the United States Navy. After the government issued a circular proclaiming that men would be rejected if they had “indecent or obscene tattooing” in 1909, the industry saw an incredible boom. Many of these tattoos were of naked women. When men decided later that they did want to participate in the military, they had to first have these women “dressed” by a tattoo artists before they could be accepted.
Popular Sailor Tattoos
Tattoos still remain popular among sailors and fishermen. In addition, there are a number of images that are most frequently used for their tattoos. Some of these include:
• The word “hold” spelled out on the knuckles of one hand and “fast” spelled out on the other – These words are said to make it possible for the seaman to better hold onto his riggings.
• A pig on the top of one foot and a rooster on top of the other foot – These images are supposed to protect the sailor from drowning because neither animal can swim. Therefore, they will want to get to shore as quickly as possible.
• Anchor – Symbolizes the sailor has sailed in the Atlantic Ocean
• Full-Rigged ship – Symbolizes that the sailor has sailed around Cape Horn
• Dragon – Symbolizes the sailor served on a China station
• Shellback turtle – Symbolizes the sailor has crossed the equator
• Golden dragon – Symbolizes the sailor has crossed the International Date Line
• Rope around the wrist – Symbolizes the sailor served as a deckhand
Regardless of the type of tattoo the sailor chooses to add to his or her skin, the bottom line is that the tattoo is meant as a form of expression. As Miss Eleanor Barnes from the Seaman’s Institute has been quoted as saying, “Some people pour out their colorful stories to juries. Others relieve the tension by writing for the confession magazines. The sailor enlists the tattooers needle upon his own body in dull blues, vivid reds, greens, and yellows to record the story of his loves and hates, his triumphs, his religion, and is patriotism.”