Anchor tattoos have been popular for hundreds of years. The anchor design was a traditional tattoo choice for men, especially sailors. The custom was also celebrated in popular culture. The comic and cartoon character Popeye sported a single line anchor tattoo on each of his spinach-fueled forearms!
Anchor tattoos remained popular with sailors for centuries. Now 21st-century designs mean that an anchor tattoo remains popular and has broad, gender-neutral appeal.
Anchor Tattoo History
Ultimately, an anchor signifies safety. A port in a storm. Dropping the anchor at sea means stability, security and a sense of connection with the earth. It’s no wonder that the anchor has been a popular tattoo for many years. This still holds true in the case of people linked to the sea to earn a living. It’s still common to see nautical tattoos on people such as sailors, navy recruits and divers.
Tattooing in America and Europe has its roots in the voyages of sailors from centuries ago. Trade missions and expeditions brought sailors into contact with different cultures around the world. In the South Pacific, the tattooed islanders from Tahiti introduced sailors to body art. It is possible that the word tattoo comes from the Tahitian word ‘ta-taw’. This is the word that allegedly best describes the sound of the Tahitian tattoo artist tools!
Whilst visiting a tropical island like Tahiti sounds exciting, life at sea was hard. Sailors spent much of their time at sea. Death among mariners was common, whether from illness, disease, or accident. Sailors were at the mercy of storms and shipwrecks. All this everyday jeopardy served to make sailors superstitious. Tattoos developed to mark voyages to different parts of the world, like the Equator or Cape Horn. They also served as visual talismans of good luck and protection.
Anchor tattoos found popularity with sailors in the 18th century. Many young sailors got an anchor tattoo to mark their first crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.
Anchor Tattoo Meanings
Anchors have significance going back thousands of years. They also have a strong link to early Christianity. The Roman Empire persecuted Christians for their faith. During this time the anchor, with a similar shape to a crucifix, came to symbolize hope. In the Bible, the Book of Hebrews even says “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” The anchor symbol is also known as the Mariner’s Cross. Saint Clement’s cross is also an anchor. It is so named in remembrance of the martyr St. Clement of Rome. He was an early Christian thrown into the sea tied to an anchor to meet his death.
An anchor tattoo’s main meaning is about sailors hopes to return home in one piece. Without an anchor, a ship would be adrift on the vast ocean forever.
Sailors might combine their anchor tattoos with the name or initials of a loved one. The design acted as a reminder of the people that were important to a sailor. They carried with them the names of the family and loved ones they hoped to reunite with at journey’s end. Names and initials on anchor tattoos are still seen today.
Why get an anchor tattoo?
Like any other design, an anchor tattoo is personal to you – but there are several popular interpretations that you may like to think about. It could be a sign of hope, showing that even when times are tough you’ll always believe there are better days ahead. Some people see the anchor as a sign of protection, symbolizing that you’re someone people can turn to for help and support. If you’re religious, you may want to think back to those ancient Christians – but with a modern-day twist, with the anchor symbol showing the strength of your faith and your attachment to its messages.
One of the best things about anchor tattoos is just how versatile they are. The anchor symbol has a whole lot of different meanings. It can symbolize stability and dependability. It can show that you’ll stick with your family or friends through everything. It can be a sign that you’re calm and steadfast under pressure.
Maybe you’re simply in love with the sea, or you like to grab a boat and go out fishing every weekend. You get the idea. You can even combine the anchor symbol with others, for example a ribbon bearing the names of loved ones. There’s an almost endless variety of anchor tattoo ideas.
There are fewer sailors these days but an anchor design is still a popular choice for many people getting tattooed. An anchor tattoo often combines with other tattoo elements. It still carries the original meaning and significance for many people.
An old-fashioned anchor tattoo design can still be very eye-catching in the 21st century. The addition of colors by the tattoo artist can personalize the design for the wearer.
The infinity symbol is a tattoo choice that sometimes incorporates an anchor. Other popular anchor design combinations include: stars and stripes from the American flag, a ship’s wheel, the North star or flowers and hearts. The anchor design has come a long way from being the design of choice of sailors. These days it is popular with a wide range of people, as well as people who never set foot on a ship.
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Celebrity Anchor Tattoos
More than a few celebrities have chosen the anchor design in recent years. Reading the list below, there appear to be more women choosing the anchor, although there are a few men that have gone with the anchor too.
The ill-fated singer Amy Winehouse had an anchor tattoo with the words ‘Hello Sailor’ on her stomach.
In a mass inking, the whole cast from the film ‘Descendants 2’ had anchor tattoos. China McCLain, one of the stars, said of her inside wrist anchor tattoo, ‘We all got very close during the film. Like this little tattoo I have here, they have them too’.
Lady Gaga has what’s known as a ‘Sailor Jerry’ anchor tattoo on her upper left rib cage. She had it inked in 2012 at the Amsterdam Tattoo Museum on her Born This Way World tour.
Model Kate Moss has a modest single-line anchor tattoo on the outside of her right wrist.
Beth Ditto has a large anchor with the words ‘MAMA’ emblazoned on her left bicep.
Kelly Osbourne has a large colorful tattoo in an interesting location on the underside of her forearm.
Singer Miley Cyrus has a medium-sized anchor tattoo on the outside of her right wrist. She had it inked in 2011 whilst in Brazil. Miley said that she wanted a design that signifies safe harbor, a place to always return. In keeping with the tradition of the anchor tattoo, Cyrus also said that her anchor ink represents hope and a reminder to stay grounded.
As well as the wrist, the ankle is a popular place for women to have a small anchor tattoo. Actor Margot Robbie has a tiny one inked on the inside of her lower left ankle.
Zoe Kravitz is a tattoo devotee with over fifty tattoos. She has also found a bit of space on her body canvas to have a simple single-line anchor on the inside of her left arm.
As the above list shows, female celebrities are fans of the anchor tattoo. Despite the design’s history of being a popular sailor tattoo for men, it’s much harder to find celebrity males with an anchor tattoo on display. Thankfully singer Sam Smith is bucking the trend and had a small anchor inked on his left forearm in 2019. Dedicating the tattoo to his fans, he posted an image of the new ink on his Insta feed. Smith wrote ‘For you, my little sailors”. Needless to say the tattoo tribute was warmly received by his thousands of followers.
Among all the celebrity enthusiasm for anchor tattoos, even LEGO figures now sport them! Look out for the yellow pirate LEGO figure with an anchor tattoo on their chest.
Speaking of pirates, Johnny Depp, famous for playing Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean has many tattoos, including one of a dolphin and anchor. This tattoo was redone when the actor’s marriage to Amber Heard broke up. The tattoo on the side of his right elbow used to say ‘Come with me… Slim’, believed to be a reference to Heard. It was subsequently inked over to form a dolphin and an anchor. This is the classic visual representation of the Latin saying ‘Festina lente’ or ‘make haste slowly’. Perhaps after the marriage breakdown, the actor needed a reminder that those that act hastily in matters of the heart, repent in leisure.