Sailor tattoos

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Tattooed sailor aboard the USS New Jersey

Sailor tattoos refer to a type of tattoo traditionally favored by sailors and the traditions that accompany these tattoos. "Old school" tattoos were common among sailors, depicting images like swallows on either side of the chest, girls in sailor hats, and pairs of dice. Sailor Jerry's work typified this style of tattooing during the early-mid twentieth century. After falling out of style for several decades, these stylized tattoos are regaining popularity again among young people, both sailors and non-sailors. They are particularly favored among tattoo artists themselves. This returning trend is also seen in the increasing popularity of traditional Sailor Jerry designs, nautical tattoos and even clothing printed with stylized tattoo images.[1]

Tattoo's Origin[edit]

It is believed that tattooing on sailors were first originated by Captain James Cook after he arrived into Tahiti. Not much can be told about how sailors tattoos originally started but it has become one of the many things that now identify a sailor.[2] Tattoos had been around for many years, but on walls, not on human skin. Tattoos now are drawing on people to tell something about themselves, or express their feelings, individuality, or to tell their story. In the times of the Egyptians tattoos were drawn on the walls to tell about what had passed, for example a Scarab was the Patron of: the sun, creation, life, and resurrection. An alphabet using symbols were also used by northern Germanic tribes long before the age of the Vikings, but it was the Scandinavian Vikings who, by the end of the first millennium, left the most well-known potent evidence of their symbols. Many other languages and countries also use tattoos for identification, such as the Japanese, Chinese and Latino gangs and factions, which use tattoos to identify members.[3]

Tattoo (PSF)

Western European sailors took up the practice of religious designs readily:

Sailors, at the constant mercy of the elements, often feel the need for religious images on their bodies to appease the angry powers that caused storms and drowning far from home.

—Tattoo Archives [4]

Tattoos with sailors can be traced back as far as the 1700s when Captain James Cook came across the natives of the South Pacific, and his crew decided to get tattoos as "souvenirs" of their visit.[5] After that the connection between sailors at tattoos has been non-ending. However the obscene tattoos in did not begin until the early 1900s when the United States government declared that anyone with an "obscene" tattoos would not be allowed in the navy. With the declaration many young men went out to get an easy way out of serving, thus creating a boom of these naked woman tattoos. However if they later decided to join the navy they had to have a tattoo artist "dress" the woman.[6]

Sailor Jerry[edit]

Norman Collins, better known as Sailor Jerry, is most known as a tattoo, a drink, and a cool design; however he was originally an actual tattoo artist. During the Second World War in Honolulu, Hawaii, the red-light district was ablaze with sailors and soldiers about to ship off, and in the very center of this was Sailor Jerry; the man most noted for making tattoos an art in America rather than just a permanent souvenir for drunken sailors.[7]

The irony of the popularity of this tattoo comes in the fact that Collins hated this much attention. In fact government involvement had made him temporarily quit tattooing in the 1950s, after about 20 years of doing it. He even despised the spotlight seekers like Lyle Tuttle of San Francisco for the fact they would draw government attention and thus their involvement.[7]

Sailor Jerry Favorites[edit]

Sailor Jerrys bottle unopened with clutter

Customs, Traditions, and Superstitions[edit]

The culture among sailors is undoubtedly rich in traditions. As evidence, sailor tattoos are a very popular tradition among the mariners. Since its origins, tattoos became a graphic language and a way of expression through the bodyart. It is important to mention that in their culture, sailors have the custom of getting tattoos to be a part of the family-like relationship. Also, the purpose of sailor tattoos are to record the sailor’s important events or experiences such travels, achievements, naval hierarchy, rank, status, membership, and/or any other significant event in life.

Examples of popular symbols in the sailor tattooing are:

  • Dragon refers to a sailor that has served in China
  • Golden Dragon means the sailor has crossed the International Date Line.
  • Anchor refers to a sailor has been in the Atlantic or the sailor has been a part of the Merchant Marines.
  • Harpoon refers to a member of the fishing fleet.
  • Rope around the wrist refers to a sailor who is or was a deckhand.[9]

Also, sailor tattoos are a visual way to preserve the culture of the maritime superstitions. Back in time, sailor were very superstitious and had the belief that certain symbols and talismans would help them in when facing certain events in life. They thought that those symbols would attract good luck or bad luck in the worst of the cases. For example, the images of a pig and a hen; both animals are not capable of swimming. According to superstition and people’s beliefs, God would look down upon a shipwreck and see an animal incapable of swimming and would take it into his hand and place it on land. Also, the pig and rooster were shipped in crates. If there was a ship wreck the crates float. Another example of superstitions is the North Star (Nautical Start or compass rose); sailors had the belief that by wearing this symbol it would help him find his way home.[10]

Originally tattoos were embraced by rebels, sailors, and gangsters. Tattoos emerged from the underclass of mariner culture; in time, it grew in port districts. Consequently, the tattoos were close related with criminals, prostitutes, and gangsters. Sailors designed mariner motifs of their own, according to their travel experiences in the ocean. By the 19th century, about 90% of all United States Navy sailors had tattoos. During this century tattoos became very popular all around the world. By the late 1880s the custom of wearing tattoos was extended to women, who adopted the tattoo tradition.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Donovan, Carrie (Feb 7, 2000). "Return of the Classic Tattoo". The Washington Post: C.4. 
  2. ^ "Traditional Tattoos and Piercings". Retrieved 3 April 2012. 
  3. ^ Hemingson, Vince (2010). Alphabets And Scripts Tattoo Design Directory. New York: Chartwell Books. ISBN 0-7858-2578-9. 
  4. ^ "Religious Designs". Tattoo Archives. 2000. Retrieved July 24, 2012. 
  5. ^ Gilbert, Steve (2000). Tattoo History. Juno Books. ISBN 1-890451-06-1. 
  6. ^ "Types of Sailor Tattoos and Their Meanings". Retrieved 3 April 2012. 
  7. ^ a b Corcoran, Michael (Jun 12, 2010). "Sailor Jerry left indelible mark on tattoo world". Austin American Statesman. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "sailor jerry". Retrieved 9 April 2012. 
  9. ^ Owen, James. "A Visual Guide to Sailor Tattoos". Retrieved 16 April 2012. 
  10. ^ "Sailor Tattoos, Become a Cool Mariner". Marine in Sight. Retrieved 13 April 2012. 
  11. ^ Finan, Eileen (Apr 22, 2002). "Is Art Just Skin Deep?". Time Magazine World. Retrieved 16 April 2012.