The roots of ancient nautical tattoos date back thousands of years. Nowadays anyone can get a tattoo of an anchor, sailboat or dolphin, but in the past, tattoos had a specific meaning. Which particular tattoos were reserved for who and what do they say about their wearer? Let's take a closer look at them together.
1. Tattoos as a logbook
Most commonly, tattoos served as a kind of logbook. They told of the seaman's history and confirmed their experience at sea. They also served as a reminder of important places visited and achievements accomplished.
What is the meaning of a swallow tattooed on a sailor? Or even two? It means you definitely have an experienced sailor in front of you. Only a sailor who had sailed 5,000 nautical miles was allowed to get a tattoo of a swallow. And why the swallow? Swallows are closely associated with the idea of return as they are able to travel long distances yet still return home. Because of this, the tattoo was also used for good luck and protection.
And if you see a sailor with a tattoo of a swallow pierced with a dagger, they had it tattooed in memory of the death of their sailor friend.
Fully-rigged ship (eg. three-masted sailing ship)
This tattoo can only be afforded to those who sailed around Cape Horn. Only the bravest and the best, who set out to the sea completely at its mercy. A similar meaning is also conveyed by the earring in a sailor's ear. Only those who had circumnavigated Cape Horn were allowed to wear one, and it was always on the ear that had faced the mainland.
Even the humble turtle demonstrates great nautical experience. A turtle shell proudly illustrates that the sailor has crossed the equator. Neptune tattoos have the same function.
Dragon tattoos adorn the sailors who sailed in China. And the golden dragon belongs to those who crossed the International Date Line. This is an internationally agreed line around the continents, at the 180th meridian, that demarcates the change of one calendar day to the next.
HOLD and FAST on your fingers
Acting quickly in bad weather, holding the rudder, ropes, and boat fast in the perfect position were vital skills on the sea. As a result, sailors would get HOLD and FAST inscribed on their fingers, one word on each hand. If you are going out on a stormy sea, you could take such a sailor in the crew and be sure that they would not leave you in the lurch.
2. Tattoos of women, girls, and mermaids
These tattoos helped fill the void of loneliness and the absence of women on board over long periods at sea. And sometimes they had their own particular meaning.
These beauties belonged to men who sailed in Hawaii.
The meaning of this tattoo is simply to remind men of the love they left ashore.
These are commonly chosen by those who want to show their love for the sea. Being attracted to them, despite their danger and deviousness.
3. Tattoos for luck and the superstitious
The work of a sailor has always been difficult and unpredictable which has made many a sailor highly superstitious. Thus, some tattoos were done for assurance, believing that they would fend off bad luck and bring good luck.
At sea, the anchor is the safest, most secure object and has always been a symbol of protection, stability and security. The anchor tattoo symbolizes loyalty, honour and of course hope. It was often accompanied by a heart or the inscription “Mom” or “Dad” or the name of the sailor's sweetheart. Anchor tattoos were sometimes used as a milestone and could be tattooed by those who had successfully returned from the Atlantic Ocean.
A lighthouse is a symbol of light, hope and safety. Seafarers look to it and rely on it as their guide to help them in need. And sometimes it also symbolized God as the principal bearer of light.
Pig and cock or chicken
These animals were popular as shipwreck protection and a guarantee of survival for superstitious sailors. But why would these animals, which cannot even swim, protect us from drowning? The answer is that they were often kept on board in wooden crates which rarely sank in an accident, being washed ashore with the animals still alive.
This tattoo was placed on the feet or ankles. If there was a pig on the left knee and a cock (rooster) on the right foot, then the tattoo signified the old saying: “Pig on the knee, safety at sea. A cock on the right, never lose a fight.”
Nautical star or compass rose
Even the nautical star and compass rose were chosen as tattoos by sailors for superstitious reasons. They hoped the star would help them navigate at night and safely get them home.
Where did the tattoo come from?The origins of the tattoo date back to the 16th century, when tattoos ("tatus" in Polynesian) were brought to Europe by sailors as a souvenir from the Pacific Islands, where the natives decorated themselves in them. And what did our predecessors use as ink? Most likely, they used a combination of gunpowder and urine.
4. Tattoos to describe your role on a boat
These tattoos are quite straightforward. For example, fishermen and members of whaling expeditions decorate themselves with the harpoon and crossed cannons indicated military service. What other roles aboard were denoted by a tattoo?
This tattoo was reserved for the lower deck officers (lieutenants bosun - boatswain). They were tattooed on the hand between the thumb and forefinger. When it was on the left hand, it meant that the officer had sailed all the oceans. When it was on the right, it showed that they had sailed the seven seas.
A knot on a rope around the wrist was reserved for the bosun and the deck officers, in short, for those who took care of the ship.
In the 19th century, the red devil was a common tattoo for engineers, firefighters, machinists, electricians and all who worked in “The Pit” or engine room. The conditions there, with extremely high temperatures, were often likened to the fiery depths of hell :).
The dice tattoo adorned risk-takers and those who loved to gamble.
Today, we can’t really know anything about a sailor’s experiences based on their tattoos, but tattoos with nautical symbolism are still very popular and from the hands of professional tattooists, they are beautiful works of art.
Want to get another swallow for your collection? There is nothing simpler. Choose a boat from our rich selection and head to the open seas!
Did you enjoy this journey through nautical history? Continue the journey by reading about mysterious customs and superstitions at sea or about the patron saints of sailors.
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