Tattoos have been a part of human history for thousands of years. Evidence of tattooing dates back to ancient civilizations such as Egypt, Greece, and Rome. However, it wasn’t until the late 18th century that these inked masterpieces became popular among sailors. They have since become a staple sight of nautical culture.

In this article, we will explore the history of tattoos, the origins of sailor superstitions, their designs and meanings, and their continued popularity today.

History of Tattoos

Tattooing has been practiced in many cultures throughout history, and the reasons for getting a tattoo have varied widely. For some, tattoos were a way to mark important events or milestones. For others, they were a way to express religious or spiritual beliefs. Tattoos have also been used as a form of punishment, with criminals being branded or tattooed as a way of marking them for life.

A sailor aboard the USS Olympia being tattooed while his shipmates look on with mixed feelings.

In the Western world, tattoos were not widely popular until the late 19th century. It was then they began to gain popularity among sailors. The history of sailor tattoos is closely tied to the history of maritime travel, and the two have become synonymous over time.

Origins of Sailor Tattoos

Sailors began getting tattoos in the late 18th century, and their designs were often inspired by their travels and experiences at sea. Many sailors got tattoos as a way of commemorating important events, such as crossing the equator or surviving a shipwreck. Others got tattoos to show their loyalty to a particular crew or ship. This was a way of expressing their identity as sailors.

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Tattoos from Polynesia have a rich cultural history, dating back thousands of years. Polynesia is a vast region that includes many islands in the Pacific Ocean, including Hawaii, Samoa, Tonga, and Tahiti. Each of these islands has its own unique cultural traditions and tattooing practices, but there are some common themes that are shared across the region.

When Captain Cook started to explore these islands in the 1700s many of the ships crew would have ‘Native’ tattoos. When returning to port in England, sometimes years later, these striking tattoos were seen as both exotic and outrageous.

Cooke’s ship HMS Resolution and The Discovery in Tahiti. Many of the Natives had tattoos.

In addition to their tattoos, sailors have a rich history of traditions and customs. One of the most well-known is the tradition of getting a tattoo after crossing the equator. This tradition dates back to the days of sailing ships, when crossing the equator was a major milestone. Naval sailors who crossed the equator for the first time were said to have been “initiated” into the Royal Navy. They were often given tattoos to commemorate the occasion.

Sailor Traditions

One of the most famous designs in sailor tattooing is the anchor. The anchor is a symbol of stability and strength, and it represents the sailor’s connection to the sea. Another popular design is the nautical star, which was used by sailors to navigate at sea. The star symbolises guidance and direction. It was often tattooed on the wrist or hand as a reminder of the sailor’s duty to guide the ship safely to port.

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The swallow tattoo is another traditional nautical tattoo that has long been associated with sailors. The swallow has a number of symbolic meanings that have made it a popular tattoo design among sailors and other seafarers.

A favourite design amongst sailors are swallows, ships and anchors.

One of the most common meanings of the swallow tattoo is related to the idea of a “safe return home.” . In many cultures, the swallow is seen as a symbol of good luck and a harbinger of spring.

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In the context of sailors, the swallow tattoo was often worn as a talisman to ensure a safe and speedy return home from a long journey at sea. According to tradition, a sailor who had crossed the equator or sailed around Cape Horn might get a swallow tattoo as a sign of their accomplishment. This would also ensure a safe return home.

Why Do Sailors Have Tattoos?

Sailors have tattoos for many reasons, but perhaps the most important is the sense of camaraderie and identity that they foster. Sailors often spend months or even years at sea, and they form close bonds with their fellow crew members.

Tattoos are a way of expressing this sense of belonging, and they serve as a reminder of the sailor’s experiences and adventures at sea.

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Another popular tradition among sailors is the practice of getting a tattoo of a loved one’s name or portrait. This tradition dates back to the days when sailors would spend months or even years at sea. As such, they would often get tattoos to remind them of their loved ones back home.

Sailors didn’t wait to get into port before having ‘ink’ done.
Here a sailor uses is own method on a shipmate.

Other popular designs in sailor tattooing include mermaids, sea monsters, and other nautical creatures. These designs were often chosen for their aesthetic appeal, but they also had symbolic meaning for the sailor. For example, the mermaid symbolizes the danger and allure of the sea, while the sea monster represents the unknown and the unpredictable.

Sailors Tattoos Today

Sailor tattoos continue to be popular today, both among sailors and non-sailors alike. Many people are drawn to the aesthetic appeal of sailor tattoos, and they appreciate the rich history and tradition that they represent. Sailor tattoos are also popular among people who have a connection to the sea, such as surfers and fishermen.

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in traditional sailor designs, with many tattoo artists specialising in this style of tattooing. These artists often use traditional designs and techniques, such as hand-tapping, to create authentic sailor tattoos.

Aviation Boatswain’s Mate 3rd Class Sarah Atiyyat shows off her ink aboard the USS Ronald Reagan.

However, it is worth noting that the meaning of sailor tattoos has evolved over time. Their significance may be different for modern sailors than it was for sailors in the past. While traditional designs such as anchors and nautical stars remain popular, many sailors today choose themes that reflect their individual experiences and personalities.

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Sailor tattoos have a rich history and tradition, dating back to the days of sailing ships and maritime travel. The designs and meanings of sailor tattoos have evolved over time, but they remain a symbol of camaraderie and identity among sailors and non-sailors alike.

From the anchor to the mermaid, sailor tattoos continue to inspire artists and tattoo enthusiasts around the world, serving as a testament to the enduring appeal of nautical culture.