Nautical Tattoos: A Brief History and My Top 12

Nautical Tattoos: A Brief History and My Top 12

In this selection of my top twelve favorite iconic nautical tattoos, we take a look at sailors, symbols, and Traditional tattoos.

Personally, I’m a big fan of nautical tattoos and have several myself. I couldn’t say where this came from, but perhaps it’s a result of living near the ocean, or the appeal of the symbolism behind certain images. I find it fascinating to discover how certain tattoos originated, especially ones that remain so popular even now.

Western tattooing can be traced back to the 15th century, although tattooing had been going on for much longer in other places across the globe. Pilgrims would mark their skin with the names of places that they had visited, along with the names of their family and hometown. It’s believed that this was to help with identification, should the traveller die on their pilgrimage.

“The attractions of tattoos for itinerant populations are quite obvious,” says tattoo-art historian Matt Lodder. “They can’t be lost or stolen, and they don’t encumber an already heavily burdened traveler, so it’s not a surprise that they became inextricably linked with sailors.”

Tattooing become increasingly popular with sailors who wanted a memento of where they had travelled to; a souvenir, if you like, which could not be lost, and would not be inconvenient to take with them on their voyages.

Fast forward to WWII and this link between tattoos and sailors became personified by the legendary tattoo artist Norman Collins, better known as Sailor Jerry, and his distinctive style. 

Combining this desire to keep a record of the exotic destinations visited with the highly superstitious nature of sailors, led to a whole host of popular tattoo designs, each with its own meaning. The ‘Top Twelve’ are listed below (in no particular order), with their meanings and the beliefs associated with them. Note that these are my top twelve; the most interesting ideas to me, as well as some of the more popular designs.

Swallow Tattoos

The swallow tattoo is one of the most popular designs (alongside the nautical star and the anchor). The swallow represents the distance that a sailor has travelled, with one swallow tattoo for every 5000 nautical miles sailed. Swallows are always able to find their way home, no matter the distance, and this is symbolic for sailors. A swallow tattoo is believed to bring luck in guiding the traveller home.

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Anchor Tattoos

The anchor tattoo signifies two different things; during World War II, a single anchor tattoo was representative of the Merchant Marine, a civilian fleet used to deliver military equipment. Among sailors, the anchor tattoo indicates the successful crossing of the Atlantic Ocean and a safe return. As with most designs, the image is also analogous to something else. The anchor represents stability and security, and sometimes includes the name of a loved one. This is a design I have myself.

Nautical Star Tattoos

The nautical star is a hugely popular tattoo, even today. Sailors firmly believed that the nautical star tattoo would bring them good fortune and guidance, leading them safely home to their loved ones. The nautical star is a five-sided star with alternating colours and makes a bright and attractive tattoo.

Ship Tattoos

Home to a sailor for many months and years at a time, a large ship tattoo is a staple of nautical tattoos. Many sea-faring folk who fell in love with the sea would get this iconic piece.

Rock of Ages Tattoos

Many sailors had solid foundations in Christianity, which meant that images of the Virgin Mary, Jesus and crosses were extremely popular. The Rock of Ages design became extremely popular. An image depicting an angel, or other characters, hanging onto a large cross made of stone, this nautical tattoo has become one of the ultimate Traditional tattoos. A symbol of hope, strength, and trust in God, this piece is sure to help you weather any storm.

Shark Tattoos

Animal tattoos are generally about taking on that creature’s traits. In the case of the shark, it is representative of a willingness to stand your ground, and not to be someone else’s seafood!

Skull Tattoo

Skulls have always been popular in tattoo design, and in older times, even through to Sailor Jerry’s time, skulls represented soldiers, mercenaries, and adventurers – the kind of people for whom death was a genuine risk on a daily basis.

Dragon Tattoo

A tattoo of a dragon, to a sailor, means that they have visited at least one Asian port on their travels. And, like the shark, it imbues the sailor with the strength and wisdom of the legendary dragon. 

Propeller Tattoos

One design idea which I found amusing was to have a pair of propellers tattooed, one on each butt cheek! The idea behind this was that it would prevent drowning; the propellers guiding the person to shore.

Mermaid Tattoo

A tattoo of a mermaid is often described as an analogy for the enticing, yet dangerous, nature of the sea. Plus, with many months at sea, it's always nice to carry a little eye candy with you wherever you go...it may even help to stave off those sexy sirens since, legend has it, mermaids actually like to feast upon handsome sailors. This nautical tattoo has become a favorite amongst many. 

Lighthouse Tattoos

A beacon of light during a dark night or storm, this particular design was a symbol of hope and resilience for sailors. This continues to be a famed nautical tattoo thanks to its powerful meaning and presence. 

Pin Up Tattoos

Tattoos of "pin ups" of women, often naked, were especially popular among sailors, perhaps as they were away from female company for such long periods of time. In the US, in 1909, the Navy actually refused to accept recruits who had these ‘obscene’ tattoos, which created more business for the tattoo artists at the time. Whilst the majority of people were returning to the tattooists to have the work covered up so that they could join the Navy, when war came there were a large number of men deliberately having naked women tattooed on them purely so that they would not have to serve. 

There were, and to some degree still are, a number of tattoos which directly relate to a sailor’s position in his job. A tattoo of a rope indicates that the person is a deckhand, and a harpoon tattoo relates to a fishing fleet. A tattoo with a less obvious meaning is the crossed anchors, placed between the thumb and fingers. When appearing on the right hand, it indicates that the person is a boatswain mate who has travelled the seven seas, and if placed on left hand they have travelled all the seas.

Regardless of their origins, nautical tattoos remain as popular as ever, and with a huge range of different designs there is still plenty of scope for individuality. I was fortunate that my children’s classes are named after sea creatures, so opted for jellyfish and starfish instead of names, which fit nicely within my (incomplete) nautical sleeve.

I hope that this information has not only been interesting, but that the meanings behind some nautical designs have given you some inspiration for your next tattoo.

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