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Why are Tattoos and Sailors so Closely Linked?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Tattoos and sailors seem to go together like ice cream and apple pie in many cultures, with sailors being famous for their often gaudy and extensive tattoo art. Members of the military are also often tattooed, for many of the same reasons that sailors are. For some time in the West, tattoos were in fact viewed negatively because they were seen as the purview of sailors and other members of the underworld, rather than of respectable people. Although tattoos have become more acceptable in mainstream society and they are increasingly common, it seems probable that there will always be a special link between tattoos and sailors.

People have been applying tattoos to themselves and each other for thousands of years. In Europe, preserved bodies from bogs show signs of tattooing, and there are depictions of tattoos in works of art from many cultures around the world. In some regions of the world, tattooing traditions are thousands of years old; in Europe, tattooing faded out with the rise of Christianity, disappearing until it was reintroduced by none other than sailors. This probably explains the link between tattoos and sailors in the Western imagination.

As European sailors explored the globe, they encountered many tribes with a history of tattooing, and sailors started to undergo the process to create a living souvenir of their trips. As early as the late 1500s, sailors returned to Europe with tribal tattoos, showing them off to other sailors and to society in general, and for a brief period of time, tattoos were highly fashionable among the European upper classes, along with an assortment of body piercings which were also introduced to Europe by sailors.

Sailors began to get tattoos every time they traveled, commemorating voyages and the places they visited. They also learned tattooing techniques, and at this point, tattoos and sailors became closely intertwined, as sailors used Polynesian and Asian tattooing techniques to apply Western themes and designs. Over time, a whole style of nautical tattooing developed, with a variety of symbols representing various things.

For example, a lighthouse would guide a sailor home, while a turtle indicated that a sailor had crossed the equator. For sailors who crossed the international date line, a dragon was applied, and a sparrow might be added to mark a particular sailing milestone, like 5,000 miles (8,047 kilometers) of smooth sailing. Numerous other examples of traditional nautical tattoos can be seen in nautical museums, along with explanations of their meanings.

Tattoos and sailors go together in the Western mind because sailors have a very long history of tattooing, complete with its own cultural background and meaning. Their tattoos also tell complex stories, with people who are familiar with nautical tattoos literally reading a sailor's body to learn about where he or she has gone. Members of the military also adopted the tradition of tattooing to symbolize their own journeys and milestones in training, and you may note that port towns and military towns tend to have a thriving tattoo industry.

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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 anon962205 — On Jul 22, 2014

The USA military has now refused induction of candidates if one has tattoos on his face, neck or hands. The PC police are still around!

By anon73251 — On Mar 26, 2010

Don't forget that sailors utilized tattoos as a way of identification of the body post-mortem. As many sailors did not know how to swim, they believed that (perhaps) their bodies could be identified after disappearance at sea, perhaps even marking their body as Christian. Read about this in "In the Heart 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...

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