Dating back as far as the 16th century, sailors have been sporting tattoos and bringing these tribal ‘souvenirs’ from the Pacific islands back into Europe. Later on in the 17th century, written records (namely Captain John Cook’s diary) spoke about the tattoos – or ‘tatus’ in the native Polynesian language – that were observed on indigenous people.
Back in the days, sailors actually tattooed each other and had to make do with what they had, like gunpowder and urine for ink. It was thought that gunpowder offered the mystical powers of protection and long-life.
SymbolismA large portion of these tattoos were mementos used to mark a milestone in a sailor’s voyage, patriotism, in remembrance of certain triumphs or places they've set foot on. However, a lot of the images used were also believed to be sailor talismans. They were trusted to ward off bad luck, and bring in the good.
Many maritime men are superstitious, and you could hardly blame them for that. Work revolved around the unpredictable elements, and their lives were therefore always under the mercy of it. It’s always better to safe than to be sorry.
Milestones• Sparrow every 5000 nautical miles travelled
• Anchor in the navy, sailors would get an anchor after successfully crossing (and returning from) the Atlantic Ocean. The other representation was that anchors, being the object that secures the ship was an icon of stable, unfaltering faith. A reason why you would sometimes see ‘MAM’ or ‘DAD’ or even flowers entwined or across it in a banner – the reasons for staying grounded.
• Dragon signified that the sailor had served in a China station or sailed to a China port.
• Golden Dragon crossing the International Date Line (an imaginary line on the surface of the earth following approx. the 180th meridian.)
• Fully rigged ship for having sailed around Cape Horn.
Luck• HOLD FAST a reminder to hold on to the lines fast when the ship is aloft in bad weather, so sailors would not be thrown off.
• Pig & Rooster (on the feet or behind the ankles) traditionally believed to symbolize survival from a shipwreck. As both animals were often kept in wooden crates on board, when a ship capsizes, these crates would float with the current and most likely get washed up to shore. Another explanation (pig tattooed on the left knee and a rooster on the right foot) was that "“Pig on the knee, safety at sea. A cock on the right, never lose a fight."
• Twin propellers (on each buttock) to prevent from drowning, as they were meant to ‘propel’ you ashore.
• Swallow (due to their migration pattern) to always be able to find your way home, home in this sense could mean home with your family or called home to God in death – birds were believed to carry souls of the departed to heaven.
• Nautical star represents the North Star; traditionally used for navigations out at sea. It served as a guide and a way back home, and was sometimes combined with an anchor (the symbol for home)
Memento Mori• Dagger through a Swallow to signify a lost comrade
Identification• Crossed anchors (between thumb & index finger) a mark of being a Boatswain Mate, sailors could have it done on the left hand: sailed all the Oceans, or right hand: sailed the Seven Seas.
• Harpoon member of the Fishing Fleet.
• Rope (around the wrist) a mark of being a Deckhand, current or previous.
• Guns or cross cannons member of the Military Naval Service.
• Anchor signified a Merchant Marine.
Girls• Pin-up girls life at sea meant leaving behind loved ones like their wives/girlfriends on land. Girls tattooed on these men were often a reminder of the ladies waiting for their safe return back home.
• Mermaids these half-woman, half-fish creatures were said to seduce sailors into the sea, to their eventual death by luring them with their enchanting songs. This was believed to be an analogy for how enticing the sea was, despite knowing well the dangers associated.
• Hula girls usually inked on a sailor who'd been to Hawaii.