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What are Some Common Nautical Tattoos?

Nautical tattoos, steeped in maritime tradition, often symbolize guidance and protection. Anchors, representing stability and strength, and compasses, signifying direction and guidance, are popular choices. Swallows, historically inked by sailors to mark sailing milestones, and ship wheels, embodying control over one's destiny, also adorn sea lovers' skin. Curious about their deeper meanings? Let's navigate the symbolism together.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

A tattoo machine.
A tattoo machine.

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.

Ports of call are common nautical tattoos, like a hula girl tattoo to commemorate Hawaii.
Ports of call are common nautical tattoos, like a hula girl tattoo to commemorate Hawaii.

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.

A tattoo of a wheel of a ship is a common nautical tattoo.
A tattoo of a wheel of a ship is a common nautical tattoo.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What do anchor tattoos symbolize in nautical culture?

Navigation, maritime, and directional devices are often used in nautical tattoos.
Navigation, maritime, and directional devices are often used in nautical tattoos.

An anchor tattoo is a classic symbol in nautical culture, representing stability, hope, and steadfastness. Historically, sailors got anchor tattoos to signify their sailing experience and to express a grounded sense of being, no matter how tumultuous the seas. According to maritime tradition, it also symbolizes a sailor's safe return from a voyage, anchoring them to their loved ones and life on solid ground.

Why are swallow tattoos popular among sailors?

Swallow tattoos are popular among sailors due to their association with long-distance travel and the idea of always finding one's way home. Sailors believed that swallows, known for their migratory patterns, would guide their souls to heaven if they were to perish at sea. Moreover, it was common for sailors to get a swallow tattoo after successfully navigating 5,000 nautical miles, as a badge of honor and experience.

What is the significance of a nautical star tattoo?

A nautical star tattoo holds significant meaning for mariners, symbolizing guidance and safe passage over troubled waters. The design is inspired by the North Star, historically used for navigation before modern compasses were widespread. Sailors believed that having a nautical star tattooed on their bodies would help ensure a safe return home, serving as a protective emblem and a beacon of hope during their journeys.

How does a ship or a sailing ship tattoo represent a sailor's lifestyle?

A ship or sailing ship tattoo is a powerful representation of a sailor's life, embodying their adventurous spirit and dedication to the sea. These tattoos often signify a love for travel, freedom, and the constant quest for new horizons. For many sailors, a ship tattoo also represents their home away from home, the vessel that carries them through both calm and stormy waters, and the resilience required to navigate life's challenges.

Are there any superstitions associated with nautical tattoos?

Yes, there are several superstitions associated with nautical tattoos. For instance, sailors often believed that certain tattoos could ward off bad luck or bring good fortune. A common belief was that a pig tattooed on the top of one foot and a rooster on the other would protect a sailor from drowning, as these animals were thought to have an aversion to water and would help the sailor stay afloat. Additionally, many sailors held the superstition that a tattoo of a mermaid could enchant and protect them from the dangers of the sea.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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

Learn more...

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

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    • A tattoo machine.
      By: Aleksandr Lobanov
      A tattoo machine.
    • Ports of call are common nautical tattoos, like a hula girl tattoo to commemorate Hawaii.
      By: sparkia
      Ports of call are common nautical tattoos, like a hula girl tattoo to commemorate Hawaii.
    • A tattoo of a wheel of a ship is a common nautical tattoo.
      By: GoncaloF
      A tattoo of a wheel of a ship is a common nautical tattoo.
    • Navigation, maritime, and directional devices are often used in nautical tattoos.
      By: mediagram
      Navigation, maritime, and directional devices are often used in nautical tattoos.