Tattoos have two historical connotations for most people: sailors and criminals. It stands to reason, then, that the combination of the two – pirates – would be a logical connection. Pirates lived life outside the realm of convention and they did not adhere to the laws or governmental rule of any country. They went where they wanted, took what they needed, and did what they pleased. For this reason, pirates are much admired in a wistful sort of way today. The idea of living a life of complete freedom is very attractive to some people. These people often symbolize this ideal life with a tattoo that pays tribute to their pirate desires. Others, those who partially live the life of a pirate, might also be drawn to traditional pirate tattoo imagery. Pirating is a modern term that refers to stealing software, music, or movies and using them for your own goals. This take-what-you-want, Robin Hood philosophy is often associated with pirates, although tey probably weren't keen on sharing the wealth of their exploits at sea.
The Jolly Roger is probably the most iconic pirate symbol and is a very popular tattoo design. The origin of the name “Jolly Roger” is fairly debated, but the symbol is clear. The design was a flag, usually black, that featured a design meant to scare those who encountered a ship flying the Jolly Roger, often a skull and crossbones. Usually, the Jolly Roger was flown to terrify the ship they were attacking into immediate surrender.
Sometimes, though, ships would not surrender without a fight. The pirate flags usually meant 'surrender without a fight, or no one will be spared. Some other Jolly Roger variations include a skull, a skeleton, a skull with two crossed swords underneath, a hand with a raised sword, two crossed swords, a skull wearing an eye patch (which is associated with pirates in general), and many others.
The pirate ship is also a popular pirate tattoo design. While Jolly Roger tattoos are often small tattoos, pirate ships can be large and quite elaborate, often featuring a Jolly Roger as the flag of the ship. These designs feature large masted ships with billowing sails.
Whether because it is creepier or because of the Black Pearl in the popular film Pirates of the Caribbean, some pirate ship tattoos feature black sails rather than white. Sometimes these ship designs are made to look ghostly, like the ship is haunted or coming out of the mists, much like the fated Flying Dutchman (a mythological ghost ship doomed to sail the sea forever and never return home).
Other times, the ship is cutting through fierce and choppy waves, much like the pirates cutlass will cut through those who oppose him. Pirate ships can represent a desire to lead a life of freedom against all adversity, much like the pirate lived freely despite the law and attempts to his life. If a pirate was caught, he was often hanged, regardless of how he lived his life.
Other pirate tattoo designs include portraits of pirates, treasure maps, treasure chests, unlabeled bottles of alcohol (pirates are usually portrayed as heavy drinkers of alcohol, particularly rum), wenches (or women that consorted with pirates when they docked), hangman's nooses, sea animals and birds, like seagulls, swallows, octopi, whales, and sharks, as well as mythical sea creatures like mermaids, sirens, and the kraken, a mythical sea monster said to live off the coast of Norway.
Davy Jones, a reference to the god or controller of the sea, also features into pirate tattoos because he is a large character in pirate folklore and sailor's tales. Davy Jones' Locker refers to the bottom of the ocean, where a sailor or pirate who drowns would end up.
Pirate tattoos can be done in the Old School style of the first sailor tattoos, with heavy black outlines and bold colors. Old school tattoos are usually flat, with little to no shading. These traditionally rendered tattoos were designed to look clear and age well.
Tattoo and ink technology has come a long way, however, and more detailed, finer lined tattoo designs are now possible.
Although colored designs are still common, pirate tattoos can also be done in black in only, employing negative and positive space to create beautifully shaded imagery that looks like a charcoal or pencil drawing. However, there is still something very appealing about the simpler style of retro Old School tattoo designs.