What do sailor tattoos really mean?


Sailors’ tattoos act like biography books. They tell about their owners. Moreover, they reveal the world of sailors’ social group, reflecting its laws, superstitions and dreams. Continue reading to learn more about what sailor tattoos really mean.

When did sailors start getting tattoos?

Tattoos have been known since the ancient times. However, they became popular among sailors in the 1760s. It was the time when Captain Cook made an expedition to Tahiti. The word “Tattoo” came to us from that island. “Tatau” means “mark” from Tahitian language. In the early 1900s, over 90% of the British navy had tattoos. What do they really mean?

Passport Tattoos

Sailors are more connected to travel than anyone else. Their tattoos, just like passports, show where the sailors have been:

Anchor. During the conquest, when the first daredevils went to explore the shores of the New World, the anchor was tattooed on the arms of those who crossed the transatlantic transition. Therefore, having such a tattoo was very prestigious.

The Dragon. The dragon tattoo was received by the sailor who moored to the shores of China.

Geisha. Only those who entered the ports of Japan could get a tattoo depicting the mysterious Japanese “hetaeras”.

Sparrow. One of the first tattoos that a boy got on the path of a sailor. It was the award for the first 1000 miles covered by the sailor.

Swallow. The bird signified the fact that the sailor traveled more than five thousand miles. The more swallows a sailor had, the longer the distance he traveled. If the tattoo has a swallow pierced with a knife it symbolizes a memory of a deceased comrade who has walked more than five thousand miles.

The ship is in full sailing gear. As a rule, such a ship was stuffed on the chest and symbolized that the sailor passed the Horn – one of the most dangerous capes in the world.

Hierarchy tattoos

Closed male communes, whether it be an army, a prison, or a ship’s command, are characterized by a rigid hierarchical structure. Your rank determines your rights and freedoms:

Wind rose. Usually signify navigators.

Crossed anchors. Boatswain’s privilege.

Rope. Ship sailor symbol.

Crossed guns. Signifies a seaman who served in the navy.

Lifestyle tattoos

In addition to trophies for the conquered countries and ports, tattoos also served as a reflection of the mentality:

Web. When the sailors landed, they invariably went to taverns. There they sat at the bar counters, leaning their elbows on the countertop. As a result, the spider web on the elbows is a comic hint of how much time the sailor spent in taverns and pubs.


Due to the constant risk and general superstition of sailors, tattoo amulets were really popular:

Hurricane, storm, shipwreck. These tattoos were considered protective.

Pig and rooster. Once again, such tattoos are protective. Pigs and roosters were tattooed as these animals were the only to survive the shipwrecks, as they were washed ashore in wooden boxes.

Crucifixion. The crucifix is popular among the sailors from Europe and South America. Like a cross or an icon, the crucifix is considered a talisman and a symbol of connection with Jesus.

Erotic and love tattoos

Spending endless hours on board, sailors yearned for women like no other. This led to the idealization of the female image, as well as the spread of erotic and intimate tattoos.

Nude beauties. Playful, sexy and smiling beauties were the only companions of sailors, tattooed on their biceps.

The initials of the beloved female. It was also popular to wear the initials of the woman you loved, usually featuring a heart pierced by an arrow of cupid. Girls, sometimes, also made a return tattoos, thus securing the union.

Mermaids and naiads. The mythical seductresses were also popular. They were seen as a symbol of luck and love.

Do you believe that a tattoo can protect its owner? Do you have one?


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