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Maritime Tattoos: A short history and present significance

Illustrations: Olivia Lunger.

While the art of tattooing human skin dates back over 5,000 years, its rich history in maritime culture can be traced more definitively. The earliest reference of the word “tattoo” in western civilization comes from the writings of British captain James Cook aboard HM Bark Endeavor in 1769. While in Tahiti, he noted “both sexes paint the Bodys, Tattow, as it is called in their language…This is done by inlaying the Colour of Black under their skins, in such a manner as to be indelible…” Captain Cook was a noted cartographer, explorer, and naval officer of the time. Although instances of individuals having their skin “pricked” or “decorated” to depict “pictures” or “paintings” can be traced to earlier texts and times (including Latin texts which often referred to tattoos as “stigmata”), it was Cook’s observations and employment of the word “tattow” that homogenized the action now known as “tattooing,” thus marking a critical moment in the visibility of tattoos (or “engravings” or “black marks” or “stains,” and so on) among Europeans. In Cook’s day, gunpowder and soot made ideal “ink.” Once pricking the skin through any number of ways, these materials were rubbed into the wound. These body markings could be key in identifying the body of a hapless sailor, but, more often than not, they were the permanent record of an individual’s journey around the world at a time when seafaring was the only form of international travel. The symbols these sailors chose could go on to record voyages, express expertise, solidify superstitions, or simply guide one home if necessary. Here are a few of these images and the meanings behind them.

Swallow: this dainty bird was earned after every 5,000 nautical miles traveled. They were usually across the chest and hoped to mirror the bird’s uncanny ability to travel long distances but always return home.
Anchor: in its singular form, the anchor signified that a sailor had crossed the Atlantic or was a merchant marine.

Crossed Anchors: typically placed between the thumb and index fingers to signify a boatswain’s mate.

Crossed Cannons: recorded military naval service.

Nautical Star: meant to always guide a sailor back home.

Full Rigged Ship: to mark that a sailor had been around Cape Horn.

Hula Girl: a trend started by U.S. sailors who had been to Hawaii.

Rope: usually wrapped around the wrist to indicate a sailor’s rank as a deckhand.

Shellback Turtle: earned by a sailor after crossing the Equator to signify being initiated into King Neptune’s Court.

Hold Fast: these two simple words would typically be tattooed across a sailor’s knuckles on each of the hands with the belief it would give them a better grip while rigging.

Pig and Rooster: when tattooed on the feet, the rooster and pig were believed to prevent a sailor from drowning. This trend originated during World War II when the livestock were shipped in crates that floated, often making them the sole survivors after a wreck.

Crosses and Crucifixes: usually tattooed on the feet as well and meant to guard against shark attacks in the event of falling overboard.

Harpoon: to mark a member of a whaling or fishing fleet.

Dragon: usually represented a sailor’s time in China, but also represented good luck and strength.

Golden Dragon: earned for crossing the International Date Line.

Propellers: placed on each buttock; this was symbolic of the sailor being “propelled” back home safely.

Sombrero: typically displayed on a pin-up girl and meant to show that a sailor had taken port in the San Pedro or San Diego area.

Polar Bear: this was rare and certified the sailor as a “Blue Nose,” meaning the sailor had crossed the Arctic Circle.

Dolphin: typically found in naval submarine service as a symbol of warfare.

Little Red Devils: assigned to “snipes.” These were mid-19th century workers who fed coal to steam engines, resulting in a workspace reminiscent of hell.

Dagger Pierced Heart: signified a relationship ending with an affair, sometimes framed by the phrase, “Death Before Dishonor.”

Maritime tattooing culture would remain largely unchanged until the mid-1880s when Samuel O’Reilly, an Irish immigrant from Connecticut, secured the design and patent rights to what would eventually become the electric tattoo machine we’re accustomed to seeing today. His inspiration came from the rotary technology behind Thomas Edison’s printing pen. O’Reilly’s design elevated the art form, and made it less bloody, more accurate, and more accessible to all.


Fast forward to the 1930s when the iconic Norman Keith Collins, or “Sailor Jack” as he was more commonly known, left his distinct footprint on this budding subculture within the art world. Born in Reno, Nevada in 1911, Collins was an adolescent when he took to train-hopping to nurture his nomadic spirit. During his travels he met “Big Mike,” a hand poke tattoo artist from Alaska. Instead of using a machine, the hand poke method involves dipping a needle into ink then applying the ink to the skin dot by dot. In the late ’20s, Tatts Thomas of Chicago taught Collins how to use the electric tattoo machine. At 19, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. During his travels around the world, his style was heavily influenced by nautical symbols, Southeast Asian art, and imagery from Hawaii, where he would eventually settle and develop his iconic flair. His work was heavily sought out, by sailors in particular. He went on to mentor other legends like Don Ed Hardy, Mike Malone, and Zeke Owen. His apprentices would go on to take over his shop after his death in 1973.


It is interesting to note that even with all of this mention of symbols and imagery, when it came to tattoos, the most seasoned sailors of the early era kept it fairly simple. In an obscure survey taken between 1796-1818, it was noted that the most common body art for sailors were initials, names, words and letters with 38% of all reported tattoos. Sea-themed images came in second at 21%. Surprisingly, or not, only 8% were symbols of love. Whatever the reason for acquiring body art, its significance continues to resonate whether on the high seas or on solid ground, from past to present.


Last month Motif held the RI Tattoo Awards, an annual celebration of some of the most talented tattoo artists in the Ocean State. Take a moment to view some of their custom work and learn more about the inspiration behind their art at motifri.com/2024tattooawardwinners