Tattoos have never had the cultural significance in European society that they possessed in others. While tattoos have an important place in cultures ranging from the South Pacific to pre-Colombian America, tattoos only received a place in the mainstream in America recently, thanks in part to the long tradition of tattooing among nautical men. Long associated with sailors, classical tattoos of the Western tradition often sported nautical themes, from anchors, sharks, swallows, stars, sea monsters and often ships and they are truly impregnated in general tattoo culture.
The earliest nautical tattoos were often rites of passage for completing different milestones, like crossing the Atlantic or serving a full tour of duty on board a given vessel. Ships grew to be especially common ways of showing what vessel you called home for your stay in the navy. Many sailors added vessels to their body as they changed postings, constructing a personal history of vessels on which they'd served.
Ships grew to be especially common ways of showing what vessel you called home for your stay in the navy. Many sailors added vessels to their body as they changed postings, constructing a personal history of vessels on which they'd served.
Ship tattoos of this type were common among American sailor for as long as they have existed, even during periods where body art was considered taboo, but it was the Second World War and the massive amounts of personnel who served in the Navy that helped tattooing escape from its nautical niche and into the mainstream. Servicemen returning to peacetime America brought their tattoos home with them, adding a degree of respectability to an art from that had previously been associated with convicts and other undesirables.
As the picture above shows, most of these tattoos were done with simple techniques and minimal equipment. The vast majority were performed with nothing more than ink and needles, and varied greatly in quality. With the expansion of tattooing into the mainstream, both the complexity and quality of the tattoos increased.
Modern ship tattoos have become divorced from the ritualized tattoos of Naval history, with the ship motif popping up on the skins of people who have never been sailors. Most common among them are historical vessels: great wooden sailing ships of the Tall Ship Era. They've become increasingly linked to the folklore surrounding pirates rather than the Navy or Merchant Marine.
Tattoos of this type are less about displaying one's accomplishments as a sailor or time served aboard different vessels, and more symbolic representations of the kind of freedom and adventure that the archetypal pirate represents. Though certainly part of the same tradition of nautical tattoos that links sailors back for centuries, they tend to feature very different tattoo techniques and aesthetics more suited to modern consumers of body art. Colors, which are extremely rare in old Naval tattoos, and complex line work are common in modern ship tattoos, which are almost always done by professional tattoo artists using professional grade equipment and inks.
Ship tattoos have remarkably different meanings and symbolism. They often represent a desire for freedom or distance from the circumstances of their owner's birth. Naval ship tattoos are less abstract, representing vessels served on or tours completed. Historical vessels are often intertwined with the mythology of the sea and the Age of Exploration, where they represented the cutting edge of human expansion and adventure.
Ship tattoos, like anchors and mermaids, have a long history in Western tattoos, but have mostly faded in popularity as tattoos have grown less bound to their less seemly roots. Changes in taste have made non-Western tattoos more popular and common while the traditional tattooing arts of Europe and America have grown less prevalent.