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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.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why did sailors originally get tattoos?
Sailors originally got tattoos for practical reasons such as identification. If a sailor died at sea or in a foreign port, the tattoo could help identify their body. Tattoos also served as amulets or charms, with sailors believing certain symbols could ward off bad luck or bring good fortune during their perilous journeys. Over time, these tattoos became a form of storytelling, commemorating personal milestones or experiences from their travels.
What are some traditional sailor tattoo designs and their meanings?
Traditional sailor tattoo designs include anchors, which symbolize stability and a safe return home; swallows, representing successfully sailing a certain number of nautical miles or the hope of a safe journey; and nautical stars, used for navigation and as a symbol of finding one's way. Other designs like mermaids, ships, and compasses also carry significant meanings related to the sailor's life and work at sea.
How did the tradition of sailors getting tattoos spread to the general population?
The tradition of sailors getting tattoos spread to the general population through cultural exchange at port cities and the influence of prominent figures. As sailors traveled, they encountered different cultures and their tattoo traditions, integrating these into their own practices. When they returned home, the tattoos were seen as exotic and intriguing, leading to wider adoption. Additionally, figures like King Edward VII, who got a tattoo after witnessing the practice in Jerusalem, helped popularize tattoos among the upper classes.
Are there any significant historical events that contributed to the link between tattoos and sailors?
Yes, significant historical events have contributed to the link between tattoos and sailors. For instance, the exploration of the South Pacific in the 18th century by explorers like Captain James Cook introduced European sailors to Polynesian tattooing traditions. These encounters were pivotal in bringing tattooing to the West and solidifying its association with seafaring. The tattoos served as souvenirs of the sailors' voyages and encounters with distant cultures.
How has the perception of sailor tattoos changed over time?
The perception of sailor tattoos has evolved significantly over time. Initially, tattoos were seen as a mark of the working class and sailors, often viewed with suspicion by mainstream society. However, as tattooing became more widespread and entered popular culture, the imagery and symbolism of sailor tattoos have been embraced by a broader audience. Today, these tattoos are often appreciated for their historical significance and considered a classic and timeless style within the tattoo community.