Put yourself in the boots of a sailor watching a massive storm rumble your way, the waves growing choppier, rain coming down at a slant, and squalls whipping against the sails. Next to shipwreck, being caught up in a tempest or typhoon was one of the most harrowing and life-threatening misfortunes that could happen to seaman, but if you were really lucky, the crewman holding on for dear life in the crow’s nest might spot a light beaming through the downpour and darkness — a lighthouse — guiding those lost at sea to shore.
Lighthouses have been with mankind pretty much ever since people started navigating the high seas, starting out as fires lit on top of hilltop spires and evolving into the towering, cylindrical structures with spotlights that we know them as today. Some of the oldest lighthouses still standing, like the Tower of Hercules on the coast of Spain, date back almost 2,000 years. The majority of lighthouses were constructed during the 1800s, when the international shipping industry experienced a boom due to advancements in technology, widespread migrations, and an increasing global commerce. Now these buildings pepper ports and people’s bodies around the entire globe.
Because of their life-saving properties, lighthouses have become symbolic figures over the centuries, especially in body art. In fact, the rise of the modern lighthouse coincides closely with the diaspora of traditional tattoos during the 19th century, during which they became a staple motif in the maritime style. They are generally thought to be representative of themes like guidance and salvation, but because of how they functioned before the advent of electricity, requiring “wickies” to keep their oil lamps burning, they also became a metaphor for vigilance. All their different meanings aside, images of lighthouses are almost always sublime, standing among the breaking surf as beacons of hope in a volatile world.
To see more traditional tattoos, probably even a few more lonely lighthouses, make sure to follow these artists’ on Instagram. If you want one of these salvational structures on your body, have one of them design a lighthouse for you.
Bold that Holds is our series where we discuss the symbolism and history of traditional tattoo designs. If you enjoyed looking at tattoos of the most heroic of all buildings — lighthouses — but be sure to check out our previous installments about anchors, reapers, pigs and roosters, phonographs, the Sacred Heart, and Rose of No Man’s Land lady heads.