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What are Some Common Nautical Tattoos?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Nautical tattoos are immensely varied, and many of them may not seem to relate directly to life on the sea, although some integrate maritime features like ships and anchors. For sailors, tattoos can be like a map, illustrating adventures on the seven seas and incorporating homages to memorable people and ports of call encountered along the course of a seafaring career. You may see numerous examples of nautical tattoos in the flash galleries at a tattoo studio, as many people enjoy getting old fashioned nautical tattoos, even if they are not sailors.

Animals are a common feature in nautical tattoos, with various animals having specific meanings. For example, many sailors historically got sparrows to commemorate a set distance traveled, along with swallows to guide them home, as swallows are famous for being homing birds. Roosters were meant to symbolize virility, while pigs would be tattooed on the feet in the belief that they would prevent drowning, perhaps because pigs were transported in lightweight crates on sea voyages, and these crates would float in the event of a wreck.

One very well known nautical tattoo is the compass rose, which is said to help sailors find their way home. Many sailors also received stylized stars which were meant to guide them home as well, in a reference to the use of the stars in the sky as navigational tools. Some sailors have tattoos with the names of the ships they have served on, and in the days of sailing, sailors often got tattoos of their ships, typically fully rigged with sails. It is also not uncommon to see Bible verses and other devotional tattoos on sailors; one story has it that in the days of corporal punishment on ships, sailors got such tattoos on their backs, in the hopes that they would prevent a flogging.

Anchors are not uncommon nautical tattoos, especially for people who have served in the merchant marine, along with ropes, wheels, and propellers. Many deckhands got lengths of rope tattooed around their wrists to symbolize their work, while crew on sailing ships received “hold fast” across their knuckles to remind them to grip the ropes while at work. Sailors with military service might receive guns or cannons, while fishermen tattooed themselves with harpoons and other tools of the fishing trade. Lighthouses are also not uncommon, and they are meant to protect the wearer from drowning by providing a guide to the way home.

Other nautical tattoos commemorate ports of call; hula girls for Hawaii, for example, and palm trees for trips to the tropics. Dragons, traditional Chinese sailing boats, and other Chinese themes might be tattooed on sailors who traveled to China, while a turtle symbolized an equatorial crossing. The tradition of nautical tattoos is on the wane in some regions, especially in the armed services, where there are strict laws about acceptable tattoos, but nautical tattoos are unlikely to fade away altogether, thanks to their lengthy history.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Musical Expert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By screenwriter — On May 31, 2008

Love and Friendship, though dear, often pass away. But haunting tattoos and herpes are here to stay!

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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