Sailors have probably been getting tattoos since landlubbers could become sailors. Many cultures have used tattoos as markings for warriors since even before the Roman Empire’s heyday. Pope Hadrian the First ended the practice in the West when he outlawed tattoos in 787. US Navy Sailor Tattoos found a rebirth in the 16th Century, however, and have been popular ever since.
The Significance of Sailor Tattoos
Sailors tattooed themselves for many reasons. Tattoos were used as identification, to show allegiance or esprit de corps. American sailors used tattoos to keep themselves from being forced to serve aboard British ships. Most importantly, they were (and remain) part of a culture filled with superstitions.
Popularity among civilians ebbs and flows, but with sailors and military members, the tradition always remains strong. For sailors, in particular, they’re poignant reminders of their travels and achievements as men of the sea. Here are just a few common sailors’ tattoos and the meaning behind them.
Symbolic Tattoos and Their Meanings
Because a swallow can travel long distances and always return home, a well-traveled sailor will sport two of these birds. The first swallow means the sailor has traveled 5,000 nautical miles. A second swallow means 10,000 nautical miles. They are usually on either side of the sailor’s chest.
2. A Fully-Rigged Ship
This tattoo most often means the sailor has sailed around Cape Horn, around the southernmost tip of South America. Although it was an important trade route before the Panama Canal, travel around the horn was icy, stormy, and often dangerous. A tattoo of a three-masted ship means the sailor is skilled and brave.
3. Shellback Turtle
Once a sailor crosses the Equator, they are welcomed into the Court of King Neptune in an elaborate ceremony (worth watching). No longer a “pollywog,” Neptune welcomes them as “shellbacks,” and they can get the tattoo to prove it. If the shellback is golden, it means they crossed the Equator and the International Date Line.
A sailor with a dragon tattoo has served in China or sailed in Chinese waters. If the dragon is golden, it means they crossed the International Date Line. These days, dragon tattoos can be for any service in the Western Pacific.
5. Hula Girl
Similar to the requirement of the single dragon, a Hula Girl means the sailor has sailed to Hawaii.
A sailor with an anchor tattoo is said to have sailed across the Atlantic Ocean. It is also sometimes used as a rite of passage, the first tattoo a sailor gets. Crossed anchors indicate the sailor was a Boatswain or Boatswain’s Mate.
7. Crossed cannons
Tattoos of crossed cannons simply mean the sailor served in a military naval force.
8. Braided Rope
Usually found on the left wrist, this means the sailor served on the deck.
Only found on older sailors, this usually means the sailor spent some time ashore in Tijuana or other Central and South American ports.
10. Dagger Piercing a Heart
This poor sailor had a relationship end due to unfaithfulness.
11. Chickens and Pigs
A superstitious sailor will have these on the tops of his feet. In the age of sail, chickens and pigs were kept in crates, which floated if the ship was sunk, allowing chickens and pigs to survive the shipwreck. Sailors got these tattoos to prevent drowning.
Worn on the bottom of their feet, crosses were thought to repel sharks.
13. HOLD FAST
Spelled out on the fingers of each hand, a person standing opposite a sailor gripping the rigging would be able to read out the words “Hold Fast” and know their shipmate would keep his grip and was a reliable sailor – or remind the other sailor of his duty.
14. Compass or Compass Rose
Thought to bring good luck, the compass on a sailor would help ensure the sailor would always find his way home. This also comes in the form of a nautical star.
15. Red Devil
An antiquated tattoo, hearkening back to the days of steam power and boilers, a red devil meant the sailor served below decks, where it was often hot from the fire required to burn coal for the engines.
Read About Other Military Myths and Legends
If you enjoyed learning about Navy Sailor Tattoos, we invite you to read about other military myths and legends on our blog. You will also find military book reviews, veterans’ service reflections, famous military units and more on the TogetherWeServed.com blog. If you are a veteran, find your military buddies, view historic boot camp photos, build a printable military service plaque, and more on TogetherWeServed.com today.