Life in Ink: Nautical Tattoo Traditions Explained

by Lorna
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traditional maritime tattoo art meanings

With vintage tattoo art making a serious comeback, everyone has probably seen a few interesting tattoos and wondered exactly what they signify.  Traditional tattooing is largely taken from naval and maritime traditions, and many of the common elements have a very fascinating history.

Did you know, for example, that tattooing of the feet and hands first became popular amongst sailors almost a century ago?  Most of these tattoos had a very specific purpose, deeply rooted in oceanic lore.  The tattooing of a pig on one foot and a chicken on the other, for instance, was done to prevent the sailor from drowning while on the job.  These particular images had a few variations too, like a pig on the left and a rooster on the right, rather than a chicken.  In later years, birds would also be tattooed on the feet or ankles, as superstition dictated that this would help keep the head above water.

 foot tattooing to guard against drowning

Many different tattoos of the hands and fingers are also laden with nautical legend, most involving particular phrases.  “Hold fast,” for example, would often be inked on the hands to prevent falling or slipping accidents while working the rigging of a ship.  The words “sink” and “swim” tattooed across the hands or knuckles was also thought to prevent drowning if the sailor did fall overboard.  Other tattoos of the hands or wrists could signify the status of a sailor too, such as a piece of rope wrapped around the wrist representing a deckhand, and crossed anchors near the thumb designating a boatswain’s mate.

Some tattoo elements commonly inked on the chest or arms include the nautical star (representative of the north star), and the compass rose, which were both meant to prevent a sailor from getting lost at sea, or to lead him home.  Superstitious sailors might get an image of a mermaid, a “siren,” or a lighthouse as well, to prevent their ship from meeting its fate against a rocky coast.  Others would get the image of a shark, usually on the bicep, to safeguard them against shark attacks while in the water.

 traditional nautical tattoo flash

There were also many tattoos that were symbolic of nautical milestones, and could only be undertaken once the sailor had hit such a milestone, lest he face ridicule.  Some of these included the anchor (for crossing the Atlantic), the swallow (one for every five thousand miles sailed), the golden dragon (for crossing the international dateline), and a fully-rigged ship for rounding Cape Horn.

 tattoos symbolic of sailing milestones

Fun Piercing Facts:

The earrings that a sailor wore were also attributed to specific meanings: a gold earring in the left ear for each crossing of the equator, arctic, or antarctic circles, and a black pearl earring to designate the wearer as a survivor of a sunken ship.

by Lorna

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