There were a lot of horrible ways to die on the high seas back in the day — cabin fever, doldrums, exposure, shark-attack, pirates, etc. — but the deadly fate that dominated the minds of sailors was the fear of drowning. There were tens of thousands of shipwrecks recorded throughout the 1800s and into the early 20th century, when the shipping industry was at its most robust. Few people lived to tell about being marooned, but those who did often commemorated their survival and the deaths of their shipmates by getting sailor’s grave tattoos. Even though most modern collectors aren’t sailors the motif still remains popular.
Sailor’s grave tattoos come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, but their defining feature is the image of halfway-submerged masts rising out of the ocean. Over the years, tattooists have incorporated all sorts of other classic motifs around this central figure to complicate its meaning. When bordered by an anchor, its evocative of how any sense of security is an illusion when at the mercy of the waves. With an eagle, on the other hand, it suggests that there’s honor in going down with the ship. One of the most famous spins on the design comes from Sailor Jerry, who had the clever idea of putting one of these sinking ships inside a bottle of booze to make a statement about how alcoholism claimed more mariners’ lives than the sea with the decline of the shipping industry.
Because the nautical context in which it was born is no longer a part of most traditional tattoo enthusiasts’ lives, tattooists have been forced to push the sailor’s grave motif to new horizons, pairing it with images that better suit our day and age. Now the doomed vessel can be found inside a glass of Guinness or on the side of a lady head’s motorcycle helmet. Pick your poison, right? Regardless of how different artists modernize the motif, it still stands for what it always has, suggesting that life’s an adventure with death nipping, like opportunistic fish, at our heels.
To see more traditional tattoos, venture over to these tattooists Instagrams. If you’d like to get a sailor’s grave tattoo for yourself, have one of them design the iconic sinking ship for you.
This was the most recent installment of Bold that Holds, our series where we explore the history and meaning of traditional tattoos. We hope you enjoyed getting over your head in the symbolism of the sailor’s grave design. If you want to find out more about other timeless motifs, check out these articles about anchors, reapers, pigs and roosters, swallows, the Sacred Heart, lighthouses, and the Rock of Ages design.