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.[citation needed] 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 sailor tattoo images.[1]

Tattoos' origin[edit]

It is wrongly believed that tattooing on European sailors originated with Captain James Cook's crew after he arrived in the Pacific. Sailor tattoos eventually became one of the attributes that identified a sailor. Many other cultures had long used tattoos for identification or aesthetics, such as the Japanese, Chinese, and Pacific Islanders, but the connection with a seafaring lifestyle in European culture developed into its own unique style of tattooing.[2]

Diagram of tattoo apparatus

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[3]

Tattoos with sailors can be traced back as far as the 1700s when Captain James Cook came across the Maori of the South Pacific, and his crew decided to get tattoos as "souvenirs" of their visit.[4] After that the connection between sailors and tattoos steadily increased. A focus on the regulation of tattoos did not begin until the early 1900s when the United States government declared that anyone with an "obscene" tattoo would not be allowed in the Navy. With the declaration many young men took advantage of an easy way out of serving, thus creating a boom in tattoos of nude women. However, if they later decided to join the navy they had to have a tattoo artist "dress" the woman.[5]

Sailor Jerry[edit]

Norman Collins, better known as Sailor Jerry, was a prolific tattoo artist for sailors. 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 center of this was Collins. His skill and prolific work helped make tattoos an art form in America rather than merely a permanent souvenir for drunken sailors.[6]

The popularity of his tattoos resulted in publicity that nearly ruined Collins. Government scrutiny made him temporarily quit tattooing in the 1950s, after nearly 20 years in the profession. Collins despised tattoo artists who he felt sought the spotlight, like Lyle Tuttle of San Francisco, because they drew broader government attention to the tattooing business.[6]

Classic Sailor Jerry tattoos[edit]

Custom, tradition and superstition[edit]

Sailing cultures tend to be rich in traditions. Over time, tattoos became one of the more popular traditions among mariners. Since their introduction, tattoos became a graphic language and a way for sailors to express themselves through body art, as well as a means of visually identifying with a broader social group. The purpose of sailor tattoos was also to record important events or experiences such as travels, achievements, naval hierarchy, rank, status, membership, and/or any other significant event in life.[8][9]

Examples of popular symbols in the sailor tattooing are:

  • Anchor: Refers to a sailor who has achieved the rank of Boatswain or Chief, though historically indicated sailing across the Atlantic.
  • Dragon: Refers to a sailor that has served in Asia.
  • Fully rigged Ship: Represents traversal of Cape Horn.
  • Golden Dragon: Means a sailor has crossed the International Date Line.
  • Harpoon: Refers to a member of the fishing fleet.
  • Hula Girl: Reflects being stationed in Hawaii or sailing there.
  • Red and green nautical stars on the chest: Shows that the wearer has won a bar fight in a foreign port.
  • Shellback: Represents crossing the equator.
  • Golden Shellback: Represents having crossed the equator and international date line at the same time.
  • Winged Shellback: Worn by aviators who have crossed the equator whilst flying.
  • Rope around the wrist/"Hold Fast" across the knuckles: Represents a sailor who is or was a deckhand.[10]
  • Swallow: Initially obtained when first setting to sea, now traditionally received for each increment of 5,000 miles sailed.[11]
  • Chicken and Pig: Usually tattooed on each foot (pig on the left, chicken on the right) to protect the sailor from drowning in a shipwreck. This is from chicken and pigs said to survive wrecks because their wooden shipping containers kept them afloat.
  • Shark: As a protection against being eaten if the sailor fell overboard.

Sailor tattoos are also a visual way to preserve the culture of the sailors' superstitions. Throughout history sailors were a very superstitious group and believed 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 were considered wards against drowning; both animals are not capable of swimming but during shipwrecks, the only survivors would be the animals caged in wooden crates, hence they would float. Another example is the North Star (Nautical Star or compass rose); sailors had the belief that by wearing this symbol it would help them find their way home.[12]

Tattoos developed in the underclass of mariner culture; in time, they grew in popularity in the port districts frequented by those sailors. Consequently, the tattoos became associated with the criminals, prostitutes, and gangs who dwelt in these same districts. Sailor tattoos differentiated from these terrestrial tattoos as sailors continued to design new mariner motifs of their own, creating a distinct tattooing culture among sailors. By the 19th century, about 90% of all United States Navy sailors had tattoos.[13] In 2016 the US Navy issued new, more liberal policies on sailor tattoos, allowing Sailors to have tattoos below the knee and on the forearms and hands, as well as allowing tattoos up to one inch by one inch on the neck including behind the ear. Additionally, Sailors with visible tattoos will be eligible for recruiting duty or duty training recruits at boot camp.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Donovan, Carrie (7 February 2000). "Return of the Classic Tattoo". The Washington Post: C.4.
  2. ^ Hemingson, Vince (2010). Alphabets And Scripts Tattoo Design Directory. New York: Chartwell Books. ISBN 0-7858-2578-9.
  3. ^ "Religious Designs". Tattoo Archives. 2000. Archived from the original on 13 August 2012. Retrieved 24 July 2012.
  4. ^ Gilbert, Steve (2000). Tattoo History. Juno Books. ISBN 1-890451-06-1.
  5. ^ "Types of Sailor Tattoos and Their Meanings". Archived from the original on 30 October 2013. Retrieved 30 September 2014.
  6. ^ a b Corcoran, Michael (12 June 2010). "Sailor Jerry left indelible mark on tattoo world". Austin American Statesman.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "sailor jerry". Retrieved 9 April 2012.
  8. ^ "More roses, less guns, and plenty of pin-up girls: Australian sailors explain their love of body art". News.Com.Au. 10 November 2014. Retrieved 8 December 2014.
  9. ^ Gabriel Weinstein and Michael Ritterhouse (11 November 2014). "Enchanted Circle veterans served with pride". Sangre de Cristo Chronicle. Retrieved 8 December 2014.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  10. ^ Owen, James. "A Visual Guide to Sailor Tattoos". Retrieved 16 April 2012.
  11. ^ "The Navy and Tattoos". Always a Sailor. Retrieved 11 July 2014.
  12. ^ "Sailor Tattoos, Become a Cool Mariner". Marine in Sight. Retrieved 13 April 2012.
  13. ^ Finan, Eileen (22 April 2002). "Is Art Just Skin Deep?". Time Magazine World. Archived from the original on 27 February 2007. Retrieved 16 April 2012.
  14. ^ Faram, Mark. "The Navy just approved the military's best tattoo rules". NavyTimes. Retrieved 3 September 2016.