Sailors have traditionally favored tattooing of their bodies. What we think of as “old school” tattoos were common, for the most part, only among sailors in the early half of the 20th century. This tradition goes back to the 1700s when Captain James Cooke made his now-famous voyage to the South Pacific Tahitians and decided to get souvenirs of their “tatau” with his men.
Over time, these men traveling between the Pacific and the United States was what helped introduce tattooing to our culture.
While there were undoubtably variations in meaning depending on time/region, here are a few of the most classic tattoos and what they’re believed to mean:
- Dragon refers to a sailor that has served in China
- Golden Dragon means the sailor has crossed the International Date Line.
- Anchor refers to a sailor has been in the Atlantic or the sailor has been a part of the Merchant Marines.
- Harpoon refers to a member of the fishing fleet.
- Rope around the wrist refers to a sailor is or was a deckhand.
- Sparrow: for every 5000 nautical miles traveled.
- Swallow: because it always finds the way home.
- Rooster and pig: on the ankles are to prevent a sailor from drowning. The pig and the rooster: are tattooed on either the calves or the top of the feet, to prevent a sailor from drowning. These animals were originally carried on most ships in wooden crates. When a ship goes down these crates would float and then catch currents and wash ashore with the other debris from the ship, making the pigs and roosters often the only souls to survive a shipwreck. A tattoo of a pig on the left knee: it was a symbol for safety at sea; it was a symbol of protection for sailors. A rooster on the right foot: because it never loses a fight; it symbolizes the fights sailors went while at sea. They were the symbol of fertility; to make sure sailors would always have ham and eggs, and never go hungry.
- Turtle standing on its back legs (shellback): it meant that the sailor had crossed the equator and had been initiated into King Neptune’s Court.
- King Neptune: it was acquired after you crossed the Equator.
- Palm Trees: Royal Navy tattoos of palm trees were made to represent the Mediterranean cruises in WWII. Many US sailors would normally have a tattoo of a palm tree or hula girl from Hawaii.
- HOLD and FAST: were tattooed on and across the knuckles. It is believed that the tattoos would keep them from falling overboard or dropping a line.
- Anchor: tattoo made by a sailor that had sailed the Atlantic.
- Full rigged ship: tattoo made after sailing around Cape Horn.
- Two stars: a sailor who can perform celestial navigation .
- Guns or crossed cannon: tattoo normally acquired by military naval service.
- Crosses on the soles of one’s feet: tattoo acquired to ward off hungry sharks.
- Nautical star or Compass rose: tattoo that symbolize and was used to help sailors to always find their way home.
- Dagger through a Rose: symbolize a willingness to fight and kill even something as fragile as a rose.
- Many sailors also got pornographic images: so that they would always have them with them, and sometimes so they would not be drafted by the military service in their countries.
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