There have been naval tattoo traditions for centuries. Since the 1600’s in fact, when British mariners first started returning from the south pacific with indelible marks of their passage. As these markings became the norm it began to beg the question, what do they mean to the wearer? Many of these symbols and images were indicative of milestones in the sailor’s career, or provided safety and protection for them in their perilous duties. Even the ink used was thought to have mystical qualities, although that may have just been to make them feel better about the fact they were most likely using urine and gunpowder to create their pigments.
The milestone tattoos of seafaring men hold real meaning and accomplishment and to wear them without earning them could have been met with reprisal on shore.
The fully rigged ship represents the rounding of Cape Horn off the southern tip of South America, some of the roughest and most erratic seas known to man.
Swallows are symbolic of 5,000 nautical miles travelled, roughly the distance between New York and Tel Aviv. The Swallow was also thought help guide the sailor home or assist in carrying his spirit to the afterlife, this was due to the bird’s ability to famously migrate back to San Juan Capistrano.
The anchor is another with a double meaning. The single anchor represents a safe passage over the Atlantic and back. It being the most constant objects on a ship also represents things or people who might keep a sailor grounded, which is why they may have a ‘mom’ banner over the anchor or the name of a special person back home.
A dragon would indicate the wearer sailed to China or a Chinese Port.
If the Dragon is Golden, it means that the sailor has travelled over the International Date Line and as a result is a time traveler…
A Shellback turtle or King Neptune shows when a nautical man has crossed the equator.
Now as we all know sailors are a superstitious lot. Many tattoos that are part of their traditions and nautical culture in general are for protection, as we have already seen. Here are a few more that help keep a sailing man safe.
If you have met a fellow with foot tattoos, chances are you’ve met a sailor. Crucifixes on the pads of the feet are meant to ward off sharks. Did you know that naval vessels carried live pigs and chickens in wooden crates on board for food, and when there was a shipwreck they were often the only survivors due to the crates. This led to the practice of tattooing a rooster on the top of their right foot and a pig atop their right. Alternately there was the belief (when a pig was tattooed on the left knee and a rooster on the right foot), “Pig on the knee, safety at sea. A cock on the right, never lose a fight.”
Twin propellers, one on each butt cheek, were meant to prevent drowning and ‘propel’ you to shore.
There is also the phrase ‘Hold Fast’ written across the knuckles to help sailors never let go of their lifeline or rigging in rough seas and be swept overboard.
Other nautical tattoos indicated the type of ship a man served on and what services he provided on that ship; a harpoon indicated a sailor in a fishing fleet, while crossed cannons identified one who served in naval military service. The anchor meant they were a member of the Merchant Marines, a group who delivered goods around the world in wartime.
So if you’ve sailed the seas you may have earned one or two of these, or if you’re looking to enter the nautical life you may want to think about visiting your local tattoo studio first. Just a disclaimer though, I’m not sure if Disney Cruises count.