Tattoos and Body Art

What are traditional nautical tattoos?

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2008-07-24 15:46:50
2008-07-24 15:46:50

The swallow for loyalty (swallows have a single mate for life), to guide a sailor home (finding birds at sea mean you're near land/swallows always find their way home) and also to signify sailing 5,000 nautical miles (one swallow for every 5,000 miles).

A rooster and pig on the ankles, knees, calves, or top of the feet are to prevent a sailor from drowning. These animals were originally carried on most ships in wooden crates. When a ship went down, the crates would float, then catch currents and wash ashore with the other debris from the ship, making the pigs and roosters often the lone survivors of a shipwreck. Also signified, "Pig on the knee, safety at sea. A cock on the right, never lose a fight."

A tattoo of King Neptune or a turtle standing on its back legs or a "shellback" for crossing the equator and being initiated into King Neptune's Court. Sailors who cross the equator are nicknamed "(Trusty) Shellbacks", those who cross the equator at the 180th meridian (International Date Line) are then known as "Golden Shellbacks", while the rarest title of "Emerald Shellback" is reserved for those who cross at the Prime Meridian.

Crossed anchors on the web between the thumb and index finger for a Bosun's (Boatswain's) mate.

Royal Navy tattoos of palm trees for the Mediterranean cruises in WWII. Palm trees, hula girls and pin-up girls were also popular tattoos from the WWII era.

The words HOLD and FAST were tattooed on the knuckles to help hold line and to keep from falling overboard.

An anchor tattoo for sailing the Atlantic or to signify being in the merchant marine, a full-rigged ship for sailing around Cape Horn or to signify a literal or figurative journey (sometimes accompanied with a banner, reading "Homeward" for those loyal to home and family), a dragon for crossing the International Date Line or serving in China.

Rope around the wrist for being a dockhand.

A compass rose, or one (and sometimes two) nautical stars to ensure always knowing the way or being able to find your way home (sailors once navigated using the stars). In more recent times, the color of the star could also denote port (blue or green) or starboard (red).

Guns or crossed cannon for military naval service and harpoons for the fishing fleet.

Crosses on the soles of one's feet to ward off sharks.

A tattoo of a shark, octopus, leviathan, etc. shows that the sailor is not afraid of death at sea.

A dagger through a rose signified a willingness to fight and kill even something as fragile as a rose. A dagger through a swallow signifies a lost comrade.

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