The art of tattooing has made a mark on cultures and societies across the world for centuries. One sub-culture and profession that developed its own style of tattooing – that is still popular design inspiration in this day and age – is maritime life and sailors.
Nautical tattoos were created in response to life at sea in the 17th century and typically include images of sea creatures, boats, anchors, compasses, and other nautical elements. Nautical tattoos have a rich history, and many of the designs are steeped in mysticism and meaning.
When Did Nautical Tattoos Develop?
Before planes, the only way to travel to far-distant continents was by boat. When Captain James Cook and his fellow sailors traversed the oceans, they met Polynesian tribes and were introduced to the art of tattooing.
“These sailors wanted to bring back a record of this style of tattooing, and there’s no way to take a tattoo home except in your skin…Aboard a ship, you don’t have much room to carry fancy souvenirs, so you end up getting tattoos as travel marks,”Collector’s Weekly
By the time the late 18th century rolled around, navy records showed that around one-third of British and a fifth of American sailors had at least one tattoo.
Popular Nautical Tattoos And Their Meanings
As the decades went on, sailors developed their own specific style of tattooing that represented their trials and triumphs. Not only that, but tattoos fed into many superstitious beliefs about life onboard a ship, so some tattoos were also seen as a way of protecting oneself from the dangers of the ocean.
A pioneer of sailor tattoos – which is also known as the traditional American style – was a man named Sailor Jerry.
He was an American who traveled around the country developing his tattoo style. He went on to the navy, and, after World War Two, opened his own tattoo shop in Hawaii where he focused on sailor tattoos.
In the 19th century, these tattoos developed bold, simple designs with thick black outlines and saturated color palettes. Sailor tattoos are perfect for those looking for eye-catching, masculine tattoo designs.
An anchor is a symbol of stability and security, as this is what was used to secure ships.
“In the navy, sailors get an anchor tattoo after successfully crossing and returning across the Atlantic Ocean,”Tat Ring
Something that often accompanies an anchor tattoo is a banner with a loved one’s name, such as a partner’s name or “Mom” or “Dad”. This can be done as a reminder of the person who is keeping you grounded among the treacherous waters of life.
There are scary things in the ocean, one being sharks. These kings of the deep seem to have a calm yet deadly demeanor.
“Sharks have no natural predators (much like the lion as being ‘king’ of the jungle) and tattoos of them can represent an unwillingness to be victimized or intimidated by others. As an animal they are quite emotionless and steely yet always seemingly maintain their sense of calm and determination,”Cloak and Dagger London
The mythical mermaid is a popular theme in the sailor body art world. A sailor mermaid tattoo is often done in a pinup style with exaggerated feminine features.
“Pin-up girls represent the ideal and extremes of femininity – from maidenly perfection to vixen-ish temptation. The woman inked on a sailor’s arm would be the only feminine form he would see for months,”Sailor Jerry
Mermaids were believed to be beautiful half-women who could lure sailors to their death. So, a mermaid tattoo can be a symbol of both the beauty and danger of the sea.
A swallow tattoo is what’s known as a ‘milestone tattoo’ in the sailor world. Each swallow represents 5,000 nautical miles traveled.
“…sailors would get the swallow inked to commemorate the distance they had traveled across the seas and as a talisman for safe travels. The sailors would get tattoos of swallows with the belief that it would help them return home safe, just as the swallows do every year,”Authority Tattoo
Also known as a compass star or compass rose, a nautical star is one of the most popular traditional sailor tattoos. This star is five-pointed with alternating light and dark shading.
The nautical star was commonly used by sailors as a navigational tool to help them chart a course through the sea. It is also considered a symbol of good luck and safe travels, so it was often placed on the exterior of a ship to guide sailors to safety.
“The folklore says these tattoos would ensure safe passage of the sailors despite angry seas, and rough weather conditions. Following this, nautical stars came to be symbols of hope for those back home, who in their quiet abodes prayed for the safe return of the beloved sailors,”Thoughtful Tattoos
Ship’s Wheel Tattoo
Of course, one of the most important aspects of a ship is its wheel – it guides the ship and steers it out of dangerous territory. It is a popular and deeply meaningful symbol in maritime life and body art.
“The ship’s wheel can represent someone trying to find their way through the rough seas that we call ‘life’. It reminds the wearer that we all must choose a path, right or wrong, through unseen dangers while at the mercy of mighty forces out of our control,”Tat Ring
Sailor tattoos are no longer exclusively for people whose lives are spent on the water. The meanings behind these tattoos can relate to so many facets and complexities of life. It’s little wonder why so many people relate to nautical tattoos and their symbolism.