When only sailors had tattoos.

When only sailors had tattoos.

Samuel O' Reilly, a famed New York tattooist, once said: "A sailor without a tattoo is like a ship without grog - not seaworthy."

Way before punk rockers, rebels, hippies, hipsters and everyday folk started getting tattoos, they were the mark of sailors. They told of the seaman's history, confirmed their experience at sea and served as a reminder of important achievements.

Of course, tattooing was popular way earlier than that – here’s a super-brief history:

Tattooing has been practiced across the globe since at least Neolithic times in ancient Siberia, Mongolia, China, India, Egypt, the Philippines and Sudan, among many other places. We know this because of evidence on mummies, ancient art and the archaeological discoveries of (rather frightening) tattoo tools. It was practiced through the ages for all sorts of reasons, including for religious and healing purposes, as part of social integration, for decorative purposes, as an expression of freedom, to denote status and rank, and to mark criminals.

When Christianity appeared, tattooing was considered barbaric and it slowly faded in the Western world, disappearing for centuries and only returning in the 16th century, at the start of the age of sail.

The practice was picked up when seamen came across tattooed indigenous tribes during their travels. Soon, sailors were tattooing each other and eventually, some enterprising seafarers “set up shop”, offering their services as tattooists. For sailors, tattoos were more than merely a way to alleviate boredom; they were a rite of passage. Certain tattoos soon took on shared meaning, and sailors wore them to show where in the world they had travelled, as well as for superstitious reasons. Here are some of the typical sailor tattoos and their meanings.  

  • HOLD on the knuckles of one hand, and FAST on the other. This was believed to help the seaman to better hold the riggings.
  • A swallow, to show that a sailor had sailed 5,000 nautical miles.
  • A pig on one foot and a rooster on the other was said to protect from drowning (pigs and chickens often survived shipwrecks because their wooden cages could float).
  • An anchor denoted rank, and/or that the sailor had sailed the Atlantic Ocean.
  • A full-rigged ship denoted that the seaman had sailed around Cape Horn.
  • A turtle represented having crossed the equator, while a golden turtle showed the seaman had crossed the equator and international date line at the same time.
  • A dragon showed that the sailor had served in Asia.
  • A rope tattooed around the wrist meant the seaman was a deckhand.
  • Red and green nautical stars on the chest showed that the wearer had won a bar fight in a foreign port.
  • A hula girl was inked on when a sailor had spent time in Hawaii.
  • A mermaid depicted the seaman’s love for the sea, and/or was inked on as a symbol for protection.
  • A pin-up girl was simply to remind the sailor of the love he left ashore.
These days of course, you don’t have to prove you’ve sailed 5,000 miles to get a swallow tattoo, and dragons are pretty commonplace even among land-dwellers. Still, we wouldn’t recommend picking a fight with anyone with red and green stars on their chest!
Meaning of Tattoos