“A sailor without a tattoo is like a ship without grog: not seaworthy.”
–Samuel O’Reilly, American Tatoo Artist
Unlike the army tattoo policy that only relaxed in 2015, The Navy has been practicing tattooing since the 1700s, when Navy Captain James Cook influenced seafarers through their voyages. In 1786, the Native Tahitian inks inspired these sailors. In the 19th century, tattooing became a maritime tradition. Sailors traveled pretty light in those days, and many were illiterate. Tattoos served as a visual record of the accomplishments, travels, professional talents, and even the superstitions of seafaring men.
George Burchett-Davis, a great navy tattooist who joined the Royal Navy at the age of 16, even has a posthumous book published in 1958 titled “Memoirs of a Tattooist: From the Notes, Diaries, and Letters of the Late ‘King of Tattooists.'”
These symbols can still be seen in modern tattoos, so let’s dive in and have a look at some of these classic tats.
This indicates that the seaman had crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Nowadays, this is the first tattoo that a young sailor acquires, more like an initiation rite into the naval service. For the civilians, the symbol indicates stability.
It is said that the Nautical Star is used to ward off the seafarers from getting lost in the sea. It represents the North Star that moves around above the North Pole. Sailors keep an eye on this star so they can find true north, helping them determine their ship’s position. A compass rose has a similar purpose.
Sailors tattoo the words “hold” and “fast” on their knuckles because they believe that will give them good luck and a firm grip on the ship’s rigging.
Pig and Rooster
Pig on the left foot, rooster on the right. This duo was believed to prevent drowning. The rationale behind this is that pigs and roosters cannot swim, so they would find the fastest route to shore and bring the mariner with them.
Just like the pig and rooster, they were also thought to protect seamen from drowning, only a bit more extreme since they were tattooed on each butt cheek.
A Swallow with a Dagger
A swallow with a dagger pierced through the breast would be inked to sailors in honor of a fallen comrade. This is probably one of the most sentimental tattoos a sailor could get.
The International Date Line (IDL) is an imaginary line that crosses the mid-Pacific Ocean and follows 180 degrees longitude north-south line on the Earth. When a navy sailor crosses the IDL, he gets to wear the golden dragon tattoo. This is different from a regular dragon tattoo that indicates a sailor has served in China or has sailed to a Chinese port.
Usually found on their feet, the superstitious belief is that they will ward off sharks.
Tattoed around the wrist, this denotes that wearer was a deckhand. A deckhand is someone responsible for maintaining the hull, decks, superstructure and mooring, and handling cargos.
There are many others to speak of as well. For example, the ancient tattoo of crossed cannons on one hand once represented service aboard a warship, and its use predates the United States. When in the U.S. Navy, it came to signify that the Sailor was rated as a Gunner’s Mate, and his tattoo would appear on his dominant hand on top between the thumb and forefinger.
You might wonder why. The Navy paid out an indemnity bonus to Sailors who lost a limb in the performance of their duties. There is a payment for losing an eye, another for a foot or leg, and another for losing a hand or arm. However, the payment was a bit higher if the hand you lost belonged to your “Gun Hand” or your dominant hand. Sailors being sailors, the Navy found that they always seemed to be losing their “Gun hand” in battles(since it paid better), so the Navy demanded that sailors mark their dominant hand.
Back in the day, when tattoos in American society were fairly rare, they represented a kind of rebellious counter culture of non-conformity. Now tattoos are so common that the display of non-conformity today might be having no ink at all. In the military, just 25-30 years ago, many visible tattoos would be disqualifying for enlisting, while any ink on the body at all would disqualify those seeking a commission as an officer.
But the Navy was different. It actually permitted tattoos to be visible while in uniform but required that they be appropriate and/or historical in relation to the naval service. No naked Hula Girls tatted on your bicep that would dance when you flexed(it was a real thing once), but a fouled anchor on your forearm or the Battle of Manila Bay covering your entire back was just fine.
If you have any stories about tattoos you encountered while serving, share them in the comments.