“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.



An anchor tattoo. ©Fred Antoine / Wikimedia Commons

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.


Nautical Star

A nautical star tattoo. ©Tina from Auckland, New Zealand / Wikimedia Commons

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.