Centuries ago, tattoos were relegated to the “barbaric” and indigenous people of island nations. As European explorers discovered new places and new customs, they returned to English, and the rest of the continent, with tales of tattoos, tattooed natives, and even a tattoo or two themselves. When the monarch was inked, himself, tattooing became wildly popular among the aristocrats, but it was sailors who spread tattooing around the modern world.
From port to port, sailors introduced the art of tattooing to a new area. Tattoos quickly became an integral part of sailing culture, and maritime or nautical symbols became the first trends in modern tattooing, most of which continue today in varying degrees. Sailing the world and exploring uncharted, and often dangerous, land was a treacherous job. Sailors adopted good luck charm tattoos in order to keep themselves safe and to aid them in a safe return to port.
Perhaps one of the more intriguing designs, and also the least common today, sailors at the time got a pig design tattooed on one foot and a rooster on the other. According to legend, the pig and rooster protected a sailor from drowning. Because neither pigs nor roosters are adept swimmers, the superstitious believed that these creatures would hurry the sailor back to the ship and safely back to shore in order to return to safe, dry land. Because of this tale, the pig and rooster were often depicted as running or fleeing.
Similarly, the “Homeward Bound” tattoo was a design that urged the sailor homeward. The design shows a clipper ship, with sails billowing, slicing through choppy waves and surrounded by a banner that reads “Homeward Bound.” This ship is racing towards shore, and nothing will stop it from returning to port. Contrastingly, the image is often paired with a mermaid, a seductive creature who is part fish and part woman. Legends maintain that mermaids often lured men to their doom. The juxtaposition illustrates that although these men, the sailors, long to go home, they are enticed by the beauty of the ocean.
Nautical star tattoos have recently become very trendy. Because the North Star is so pivotal in sea navigation, and because many sailors throughout time have relied on the star to guide them home safely, this tattoo design is believed to represent the North Star and, as such, the North Pole. The North Star does not move and it does not change. It is a constant in an ever-changing environment. The star tattoo design is often combined with the compass rose which is a second symbol of navigation and of finding ones direction. The nautical star represents a fixed point – a point of reference – which the sailors could rely on to keep them safe and out of harms way. It guided them through physical and emotional confusion, always leading them back home to friends and loved ones.
Anchors were also popular tattoo motifs at the time. Like the North Star, the anchor could provide stability in turbulent and changing water. Without an anchor, the ship would be lost, with no hope of finding the right direction. The anchor, however, was also incorporated into less hopeful nautical theme tattoos. When a ship or sailor is lost, the “sailor grave” tattoo might be used to commemorate or memorialize them. Featuring an anchor tattoo design, life preserver, eagle, and sinking ship, this tattoo represented those that were lost as sea, as well as the full extent of the dangers of living the sailor lifestyle.
Another protective tattoo was the knuckle tattoo featuring the words “hold fast.” Sailors would get these words tattooed on their hands as a constant reminder to hold tight to the deck ropes and be vigilant, or risk falling overboard, getting hurt, or death.
Women were not found aboard ships, so sailors often left their wives, girlfriends, and lovers behind in port. To ease the separation, and to remind themselves of what they had left behind, waiting for their return, lettering tattoo designs of women and names were popular. Just like today, nautical pin-up girls, mermaids, and hula girls were all synonymous with the sailing lifestyle. Hula girls represented the allure of distant lands and the mystery of indigenous natives. Mermaids stood for the draw of life at sea, despite all of its dangers. And the pin-ups symbolized the women left behind at the last harbor – the girls the sailors had waiting for them back home.
These tattoos, and all other traditional maritime tattoos, were done in colors like red and blue, with heavy black outlines. This “Old School” style is very distinctive and is still copied by tattoo artists today.