The nautical themed tattoo has a place in the American traditional style, but it also has a long history across a variety of human cultures. Just think about how important seafaring has been to us as a species for a moment. It has allowed us to explore the world, get in touch with new cultures, do important trade, and exchange ideas. The sea and the sailing ship, as an icon of human progress and curiosity, has deep cultural roots.
The Importance of the Sailor
When Captain Cook explored the world, he came into contact with numerous indigenous cultures where body tattooing was widely practiced. It would be easy to say that nautical tattoos in the West first had their start with the voyages of Captain Cook, but the reality is that seafaring cultures, including the Phoenicians, Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, and Romans, had all been in contact with cultures where body art was important.
Even so, lots of American traditional tattoos derive their inspiration from the idea that explorers like Captain Cook popularized tattoos in the New World. Thus, images of sailing ships, anchors, mythical sea creatures, and pretty ladies, came to be associated with sailors and anyone with a deep association with the sea.
Indeed, even American sailors from over a century ago were sporting nautical themed tattoos almost as a badge of honor. Because of this, tattoos were also associated with sailors, and it wasn’t until the latter half of the 20th century that they became popular with other people. These days, nautical tattoos aren’t just for men in the Navy – they are for men and women everywhere.
Back to the Old School
Traditionally, tattoos of sailing ships and other nautical images were performed with limited equipment. Indeed, back then the inks used were also quite rudimentary. For this reason, such traditional tattoos often feature bold outlines and black or blue ink. They have a simple style to them that is also quite beautiful.
One early proponent of the American traditional tattoo style featuring nautical themes, such as ships, was Sailor Jerry. He had served in the US Navy and developed a traditional tattooing style that featured sailing ships, anchors, daggers, and so on.
The Meaning of Ship Tattoos
Given our long history with the sea and how important it has been to many human civilizations, it should be no surprise that the ship conveys a wide range of meanings. Here are just some of the most common meanings of ship tattoos:
- Courage, bravery, and independence
- Exploration and new beginnings
- Challenges of life
The Myth of the Sea
The sea can also be a dangerous place. Sudden storms can toss a ship around and cause injury and death. For our ancestors, the sea was also full of mythical creatures that could swallow sailors and even entire ships. Just think about the sea monster coiled around early sailing ships.
In this sense, the sea also represents our mythical imagination and the darker aspects of our consciousness. We know less about the oceans than any other place on the planet. This sense of mystery can be thrilling but it can also be dark and dangerous.
The sea as a symbol of both human frailty and human endeavor has been outlined in literature many times. The Old Man and the Sea, by Hemingway, is one of the most famous examples of the sea as something to overcome. It is a teacher that reveals itself slowly and challenges the narrator.
In this context, sailors have traditionally been seen as brave souls setting out on a journey that could take them to new lands. But it could also take them to their deaths. The sailing ship was the vessel that carried them on this journey and is representative of human endeavor and ingenuity, but also of our frailty as a species in the face of Mother Nature’s primal power.
Should You Get a Traditional Ship Tattoo?
The good news is that ship tattoos are not just for sailors any longer. Ships and nautical motifs have much more profound meanings that can appeal to men and women from any background.
Those who have a close affiliation with the sea and sailing may see the clear link, but ships have been important to humankind for millennia and continue to fire the imagination. Some people may want a ship tattoo due to their links with the Navy, but it may also be appealing because they want to honor someone who was in the Navy or a family member who was lost at sea.
Other people may find the mystery of the sea enticing. For them, the sailing ship symbolizes our struggles against life’s many challenges. Just as we sail on troubled waters during a storm, we may also survive to sail on calmer waters with a greater knowledge of ourselves, just as Hemingway envisioned in his famous story.
One other thing you should do is research what you want and why. Do you want a traditional sailing ship, like our ancient ancestors had? Do you want a sailing ship from the era of Captain Cook? Is the ship in a storm or is it on calm waters? Is it sailing or sinking? Is it a Ghost ship or Viking ship?
Many people also have other images right alongside their ship tattoo. It’s not uncommon to see birds, skulls, daggers, hearts, and palm trees decorating ship tattoos. Working out what you want and why is important.
Types of Ship Tattoo
You don’t just have to have a traditional sailing ship inked. There are quite a few types of ships to choose from, and if you’re in the modern Navy, you might even want a more modern take on the old school ship. For something a little bit different, try out these ships:
The overriding meaning of the pirate ship is living outside of the normal rules of society. Pirates operate in a space that is not only outside of our normal societal rules, but they also take on the risks and challenges of the sea.
Adding skulls, tropical islands, and so on can really add to the appeal of this type of tattoo. This may appeal to those who find the idea of living outside of the normal rules enticing.
Viking Long Boat
Much like the pirate ship, the Viking Long Boat conveys a sense of foreboding. Vikings were the settlers and pirates of their day, and raided villages afar. As such, the Viking Long Boat is appropriate for those who are attuned to the darker aspects of life. Having said that, A Viking ship is also a fantastic tattoo for those who have Nordic heritage.
The image of the ruined ghost ship, with tattered and torn sails, and new crew, symbolizes our sense of mortality. At sea, anything can happen, and as we face life’s challenges we are not always going to be sailing on calm or trouble-free waters. The ghost ship is indicative of where we all finally end up on our journey and is a stark reminder of our own mortality and vulnerability.
The ship and other nautical themed tattoos have a long and illustrious history across many human cultures from around the world. It can be worn by both men and women and offers many interesting variations that provide deep meaning.