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Sailor tattoos

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Aboard the USS New Jersey, 1944

Sailor tattoos are traditions of tattooing among sailors, including images with symbolic meanings. These practices date back to at least the 16th century among European sailors, and since colonial times among American sailors. People participating in these traditions have included military service members in national navies, seafarers in whaling and fishing fleets, and civilian mariners on merchant ships and research vessels. Sailor tattoos have served as protective talismans in sailors' superstitions, records of important experiences, markers of identity, and means of self-expression.

For centuries, tattooing among sailors mostly happened during downtime at sea, applied by hand with needles and tattoo ink made with simple pigments such as soot and gunpowder. These tattoo artists informally developed a graphical vocabulary including nautical images such as mermaids and ships. Starting in the 1870s, a few former sailors began opening professional tattoo parlors in port cities in the United States and England. This trend increased after the development of the electric tattoo machine in the 1890s.

On USS Ronald Reagan, 2016

In the United States, these sailors turned tattooists trained a generation of professional tattoo artists, who went on to develop the American traditional ("old school") tattoo style by combining sailor traditions with styles and techniques learned from Japanese tattoo artists. "Sailor tattoos" can refer to this style of tattoo, which was popularized for a broader audience starting in the 1950s.

There are records of significant numbers of tattoos on US Navy sailors in the American Revolution, Civil War, and World War II. Many sea service members continue to participate in the tradition.



"Figures printed on the arms of our Tarentine sailors" from Voyage en Italie, en Sicile et à Malte, 1778 by Louis Ducros

To what extent tattooing among European sailors traces back to an indigenous European tattooing tradition, and to what extent it is a product of cultural exchange during the Age of Discovery, is unknown.[1]: xvii  While tattoo, from the Polynesian root "tatau," only entered English and other European languages in the late 18th century, European sailors have practiced tattooing since at least the 16th century.[1]: xvii [2]: 19 

We should be wrong to suppose that tattooing is peculiar to nations half-savage; we see it practised by civilized Europeans; from time immemorial, the sailors of the Mediterranean, the Catalans, French, Italians, and Maltese, have known this custom, and the means of drawing on their skin, indelible figures of crucifixes, Madonas [sic], &c. or of writing on it their own name and that of their mistress.

— Charles Pierre Claret de Fleurieu, Voyage autour du monde (1798)[3]

The development of an "identifiable tattooing tradition" among sailors may be an extension of their "choice of social self-demarcation through distinctive dress and accessories."[4]: 76  The sailor was proud of his profession and "wanted people to know that he went to sea."[5]: 553  Tattoos are also practical: they help to identify the body of a drowned sailor.[6]

18th century[edit]

English and American sailors circa 1700–1750 used ink or gunpowder to create tattoos by pricking the skin and rubbing the powder into the wound.[7]: 12  For example, in the 1720s–1730s in Virginia and Maryland, there were multiple mentions in newspapers of sailors who had blue markings on their arms, including initials and crucifixes, made with gunpowder.[8] By 1740, seamen were recognizable at a glance by their distinctive dress and tattoos.[7]: 10–2 

Drawings of tattoos, including initials, hearts, and an anchor, recorded in protection papers[5]: 529 

There is a persistent myth that tattoos on European sailors originated with Captain James Cook's crew, who were tattooed in Tahiti in 1769, but Cook brought only the word tattoo to Europeans, not the practice itself.[2]: 16–23  Maritime historian Ira Dye writes that "the tattooing of American (and by strong inference, European) seafarers was a common and well-established practice at the time of Cook's voyages."[5]: 523  Scholars debate whether Cook's voyages increased the popularity of tattooing among sailors per se, or whether the rise of print culture and surveillance-based recordkeeping that happened around the same time made tattoos more visible in the historical record.[2]: 19–22 [9]: 157 

Following the American Revolution, American sailors' tattoos were listed in their protection papers, an identity certificate issued to prevent impressment into the British Royal Navy.[5][10]

The Naval History and Heritage Command says that "by the late 18th century, around a third of British and a fifth of American sailors had at least one tattoo."[11][a]

19th century[edit]

Le tatouage du matelot by Constantin Jean Marie Prevost, 1830

Sailor tattoo motifs had already solidified by the early 19th century, with anchors, ships, and other nautical symbols being the most common images tattooed on American seafarers, followed by patriotic symbols such as flags, eagles, and stars; symbols of love; and religious symbols.[5]: 532–3 

It was common for sailors to bring toolboxes of needles and inks aboard ships to tattoo each other at sea.[12] Herman Melville, who served in the United States Navy in 1843-4, recounts:[13]

Others [of my shipmates] excelled in tattooing, or pricking, as it is called in a man-of-war. Of these prickers, two had long been celebrated, in their way, as consummate masters of the art. Each had a small box full of tools and coloring matter; and they charged so high for their services, that at the end of the cruise they were supposed to have cleared upward of four hundred dollars. They would prick you to order a palm-tree, an anchor, a crucifix, a lady, a lion, an eagle, or any thing else you might want.

"French sailor and deserter" (at right) from The Criminal by Henry Havelock Ellis, 1890; originally printed in L'homme criminel: atlas by Cesare Lombroso, 1888. This may be a composite image that does not depict a specific individual.[15]

A letter from a sailor serving aboard the USS Monitor during the American Civil War describes his "old salt" shipmates as significantly tattooed:

I wish you could see the body's of some of these old saylors: they are regular Picture Books. [They] have India Ink pricked all over their body. One has a Snake coiled around his leg, some have splendid done pieces of Coats of Arms of states, American Flags, and most all have the Crusifiction [sic] of Christ on some part of their body."

— George Geer, May 24, 1862[16]

Personnel records from the USS Adams from 1884 to 1889 show that 17.5% of its crew had tattoos. Rates of tattooing varied between the occupational groups aboard the ship, with 28.9% of men who actually sailed the ship having tattoos, compared with only 4% of men who provided specialized services, such as apothecaries and carpenters.[17]: 166–170 

While French and Italian criminologists linked tattoos to criminality, tattooing was "sufficiently normalized that it attracted virtually no official or scholarly attention" among British criminologists.[9]: 158  By the late 19th century, tattoos were common among officers as well as enlisted men in the Royal Navy, whereas tattoos among French and Italian officers were less common.[18]: 142 [19]: 368  American naval officers were also tattooed, usually while serving in the Western Pacific.[20]

Tattooing by hand on USS Olympia, circa 1899

In the late 19th century, tattooing among sailors began to shift from a pastime on ships to professional shops in port cities. In the early 1870s, Martin Hildebrandt, who had learned tattooing from a fellow sailor in the US Navy,[21] opened one of the first tattoo parlors in the United States.[22] The development of electric tattoo machines in the 1890s enabled faster and more precise tattooing.[23] To fulfill increased demand for tattoos, artists began to buy and sell sets of pre-drawn designs (flash), especially simple designs with black outlines and limited colors, to enable quick work.[24]

20th century[edit]

Early 20th century[edit]

Example of flash circa 1900–1945

In records from 1900–1908, among the more than 3,500 sailors who passed through the USS Independence, 23% of first-time enlistees in the United States Navy were already tattooed, and an estimated 60% of "old timers" (sailors who had served more than ten years) had at least one tattoo.[25]: 38  The common images were, in order of popularity: coats of arms, flags, anchors, eagles and birds, stars, female figures, ships, clasped hands, daggers, crosses, bracelets, and hearts.[25]: 38  Comparative records show that sailors acquired tattoos more frequently than Marines or soldiers.[26]

Similar design on a sailor in 2019

In 1908, anthropologist A. T. Sinclair, who examined "many hundreds" of sailors, reported that 90% of American man-of-war men and deep-water sailors were tattooed, along with slightly smaller majorities of merchant marines and sailors on coastal trading vessels, compared with only 10% of New England fishermen.[19]: 369  Sinclair reported that 90% of "Scandinavian (Sweden, Norway, and Denmark) deep-water sailors" were tattooed, whereas "other Scandinavians never use the practice."[19]: 367 

Some sailors and service members became professional tattoo artists. Amund Dietzel learned to tattoo as a sailor on Norwegian merchant ships in about 1905–1906.[27] He opened a tattoo shop in the United States in 1913 or 1914 and became an influential tattoo artist who worked on many sailors and soldiers.[28] Ben Corday worked on a sailing ship and in the Royal Marines, became a United States citizen in 1912, and worked as a tattoo artist and flash designer. England had prominent tattoo artists in the early 1900s, including George Burchett, Sutherland Macdonald, and Tom Riley, who had served in the Royal Navy or British Army.

By 1914, the US Navy had started discouraging risqué tattoos, so, to avoid being disqualified from service, sailors sometimes had a tattoo artist "dress" their tattoos of nude women.[29][11]

World War II[edit]

Gunner's mate in 1944 with tattoos commemorating service on USS Vincennes (CA-44) and shipmates lost in the Battle of Savo Island

There are estimates that more than 65% of US Navy sailors had a tattoo during World War II.[12] A study of Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1943 found that 65% of customers visiting the city's tattoo shops were non-commissioned Navy personnel, 25% were enlisted Army personnel, and the remaining 10% were defense workers.[30]: 302  All of the shops used electrical tattooing machines.[30]: 303 

Sailors continued to use tattoos for identification in World War II: Social Security number or service number tattoos were available for $1.50.[30]: 302 

Growth in popularity among non-sailors[edit]

A specific style of "old school" tattoos became popular among sailors in the 1930s–1940s, featuring traditional symbols and other maritime-inspired images inked in simple black lines with color touches.[31] This style was further popularized in subsequent decades, including for people who weren't sailors, through the work of prolific tattoo artists including Norman Collins (known as Sailor Jerry) in Honolulu,[32] and Lyle Tuttle in San Francisco.[31] In particular, Collins reworked 1920s–1930s designs with influences from Japanese artists, creating stylized images that appealed to a wider audience in the 1950s–1960s.[33] The diffusion of sailor tattoos to a wider audience was also happening in Canada during those decades: tattoo artists working in port cities and near Navy bases reported that, in the 1950s–1960s, while they mostly served sailors, they also had other customers who wanted sailor-style tattoos.[34]

By the early 1990s, interest in sailor tattoos had waned among sailors and non-sailors alike. In 1995, artists at Bert Grimm's tattoo studio in Long Beach, California, near the Long Beach Naval Shipyard that was scheduled to close in 1997, spoke about a decline in customers: fewer sailors seemed interested in getting traditional tattoos that marked them as Navy "lifers", and that the Navy was discouraging tattoos.[35]

Ad for Sailor Jerry branded product in 2010

Despite a general decline in interest, the "old school" style had remained popular among tattoo artists, and in the 1990s and 2000s, artists such as Don Ed Hardy promoted a revival.[36] Hardy had been trained by a tattoo artist, Samuel Steward, who learned from Amund Dietzel and had some of Dietzel's flash in his shop.[37]: 110  In 1995, Hardy published a book that supported renewed public interest in older designs, Flash from the Past: Classic American Tattoo Designs 1890–1965.[33] In 1999, Hardy, Steven Grasse, and Michael Malone started Sailor Jerry Ltd. to use Collins' flash designs on products including Sailor Jerry Rum.[38][39] Hardy started licensing his own tattoo-inspired art for a line of clothing in the early 2000s, and subsequently many other products have been sold under his brand.[40] This themed merchandise contributed to the popularity of this style of tattoo among the general public.[33]

21st century[edit]

Machinery repairman in 2016: “A lot of unique experiences come with being a service member and our stories become complex at times. With tattoos we are able to record those experiences with a time-honored tradition."


In 2016, the US Navy liberalized its tattoo policies, allowing sailors to have tattoos below the knee and on the forearms and hands, as well as tattoos up to one inch by one inch on the neck, including behind the ear.[41] Sailors with visible tattoos became eligible for recruiting duty and training recruits at boot camp.[41] The US Coast Guard changed its policies in 2016 and 2019 to allow arm and hand tattoos, respectively, with the aim of supporting recruitment efforts.[42] In 2020, the US Navy considered opening tattoo parlors on bases, as part of Navy Exchange shops and services.[43]

In 2017, the Royal New Zealand Navy gave its first approval to an active sailor to receive a traditional Māori tā moko.[44] Since then, more people have received moko while in Navy service.[45] Sailors in the Royal Australian Navy have incorporated symbolic tattoos as part of their nautical traditions.[46][47]

General population[edit]

In the 2010s, "retro" sailor-style tattoos continued to be popular as part of the American Traditional style.[48] One tattoo artist in London said, "People don't want the tattoos their dad had, they want the tattoos their granddad had", referring to crests and traditional sailor motifs from the 1940s–1950s.[49] Regarding the practice of modern people getting new tattoos of old flash designs, many of which are derived from sailor motifs,[37]: 106–107  art historian Matt Lodder writes:

To tattoo a tall ship on a sailor in 1920 was a reasonable, and perhaps inevitable undertaking; to tattoo such a ship on a millennial suburbanite is, like Menard’s Quixote, 'almost infinitely richer'; though identical in form it is buoyed by several centuries of accumulated cultural resonance, to which the very act of repetition only adds.[37]: 114 

Traditional designs[edit]

Tattoo of a mermaid holding a mirror from 1808[5]: 542, 545 
Sailor on USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) with a tattoo including a tall ship, anchor, and mermaids, in 2019

Protection papers for American seafarers between 1796–1818 provide an important source of information about older tattoo designs.[5]: 523  Along with the United States coat of arms, Masonic lodge symbols, hearts, and religious symbols, nautical images were popular: anchors, mermaids, whales, ships, the mariner's compass, and the carpenter's axe and adze.[5]: 540–546  Anchors on the backs of the hands were especially common.[5]: 548 


Claims that particular designs reflect sailors' superstitions, including the belief that certain symbols were lucky talismans, have circulated since at least the 1930s.[5]: 547  It is not clear how old some of these traditions are, as the associated designs do not show up in the surviving protection papers.[5]: 547 

Seabee with "Hold Fast" and swallow tattoos in 2020

One claim is that sailors believed that a nautical star or compass rose would help them navigate, including finding their way back to port or home.[11][50] In a superstition dating back to at least the late 19th century,[b] a pig and a hen, usually tattooed on each foot (pig on the left, chicken on the right), were wards against drowning in a shipwreck.[51] "Hold Fast" across the knuckles was a charm to help deckhands and boatswain’s mates keep a firm grip on the rigging.[52]

Religious tattoos such as crucifixes have also served as protective symbols for sailors.[52][53] In a superstition dating back to at least the 1840s, crosses on the feet were meant to prevent shark attacks if a sailor went overboard.[14]: 203 

Experiences and achievements[edit]

Sailor's hand with a tattoo of a skull, anchor, lifebuoy, and damage controlman insignia (axe and maul), in 2019

Tattoos have served as records of important experiences such as travels, achievements, rank, status, role, membership, and other significant events.[46] Tattoo artist Doc Webb said that sailors traditionally received a swallow or bluebird tattoo for traveling 5,000 nautical miles (9,260 km), and a second for traveling 10,000 nautical miles (18,520 km), on either side of the chest;[51] other sources say at the base of each thumb.[54] The barn swallow is symbolic because it migrates far from home and back again.[50]

A fully-rigged ship was a popular design,[52] and for some sailors it represented traversal of Cape Horn, an important trade route that was especially dangerous.[55] It could also indicate a skilled topman.[5]: 547  A clipper ship labeled "Homeward" or "Homeward Bound" was a reference to adventure and return.[56]

An anchor could indicate sailing across the Atlantic, or represent that a sailor had achieved the rank of a leader or had spent a long time at sea,[57] or it could be sailor's a first tattoo.[11] Crossed anchors between the thumb and forefinger signified a boatswain's mate,[42] while crossed cannons represented naval service. A rope around the wrist represented service as a deckhand, and a harpoon signified a member of a whaling or fishing fleet.[58]

Tattoos can mark participation in line-crossing ceremonies. A shellback or King Neptune reflects crossing the equator, and a golden dragon means a sailor has crossed the International Date Line (Domain of the Golden Dragon).[50] A golden shellback represents having crossed the equator and international date line at the same time.[59]

A dragon tattoo was common among sailors who had served in China, and later reflected service in the Western Pacific in general.[11] A hula girl or palm tree was common among sailors who had sailed to or were stationed in Hawaii.[11]

Representations in media[edit]

Sailor with a Popeye tattoo (1940)

Authors of books, paintings, and comics have created sailor characters with anchor tattoos as one of the distinctive signs of their profession. Tattooed sailors were a "minor trope" of Victorian literature; in A Study in Scarlet (1887), Sherlock Holmes is able to identify a retired Marine on the basis of an anchor tattoo on the back of his hand.[18]: 141  Norman Rockwell's painting "Sailor Dreaming of Girlfriend", on the cover of the January 1919 issue of The Saturday Evening Post, shows a sailor with an anchor tattoo on the back of his hand.[60][61] The cartoon character Popeye the Sailorman, who first appeared in a comic strip in 1929, has prominent anchor tattoos on his forearms.[62][63]

The tattooed sailor has been used as a humorous figure. Another Rockwell painting, for the cover of the Post in March 1944, shows a tattoo artist adding a woman's name to a sailor's shoulder below several crossed-out names, among many other tattoos.[64] With typical fidelity, Rockwell borrowed a tattoo machine to use as a reference.[65] In the 1954 film There's No Business Like Show Business, Ethel Merman and Mitzi Gaynor cross-dress in sailor outfits and sing "A Sailor's Not a Sailor ('Til a Sailor's Been Tattooed)" to each other.[66]

A drawing by Tom of Finland printed in Physique Pictorial (1962). Part of the series "Tattooed Sailor and the Hoods".

Some representations of tattooed sailors are sexual fantasies. In Tom of Finland's illustrations in the 1960s, the tattooed young sailor represented a masculine, gay archetype of sexual availability.[67][68] French fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier has used the stereotyped gay sailor and sailor tattoos in his work involving camp and ambiguity in gender and sexuality.[69] Since its launch in 1995, Gaultier has used images of eroticized tattooed sailors to advertise Le Male, a men's fragrance.[70] His fragrance advertisements portray sailors with "old style" tattoos as masculine objects of male desire, with some tattoos that suggest a comic exaggeration of masculinity, while other tattoos have an element of decoration and thereby femininity.[71]


  1. ^ "The records for 1796-1803 show 20.6 percent of all American seamen applying for Protection Certificates at that time to have been tattooed."[5]: 527 
  2. ^ In an article by a US Navy surgeon, describing tattoos encountered 1900–1908: "pig on dorsum of foot, which among the older men was supposed to shield its possessor from death by drowning."[25]: 39 


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