History of Maritime
Tattoos and Body Art
US Navy History and Traditions

What were traditional nautical tattoos and piercings sailors got and why?


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2011-09-13 17:33:40
2011-09-13 17:33:40
Traditional Tattoos and PiercingsI believe that tattoos originated after James Cooke first arrived on Tahiti. Tattooing was very popular in the South Pacific. Fletcher Christian and George Stewart of Mutiny on the Bounty fame both had stars tattooed on the left of their chests. Perhaps these were early Nautical Stars.

FAQ Farmers have offered these:

  • Sailors got their ears pierced because it helps improve eyesight (I think its an acupuncture site).
  • A black pearl earring for survivors of a sinking ship .
  • Golden earrings were used as a means of ensuring they were buried properly should they die at sea or in a foreign port.
  • In modern times a brass earring denoted a Survivor of a ship sinking.
  • One left ear piercing for crossing each of the Equator, Artic Circle, and Antarctic Circle.
  • Earrings were thought to keep spirits from entering through the ear, but that's not a purely sailor thing.
  • A sparrow for every 5000 thousand nautical miles traveled,.
  • A sailor would get a swallow tattoo for every 5000 miles he had sailed.
  • A swallow because it will always find its way home.
  • A rooster and pig on the ankles are to prevent a sailor from drowning.
  • The pig and the rooster are tattooed on either the calves or the top of the feet, to prevent a sailor from drowning,. These animals were originally carried on most ships in wooden crates. When a ship goes down these crates would float and then catch currents and wash ashore with the other debris from the ship, making the pigs and roosters often the only souls to survive a shipwreck.
  • A tattoo of a pig on the left knee and a rooster (cock) on the right foot signified "Pig on the knee, safety at sea. A cock on the right, never lose a fight."
  • Tattoos of pigs and chickens were to make sure they always had their ham and eggs so that they never go hungry.
  • A turtle standing on its back legs (shellback) for crossing the equator and being initiated into King Neptune�s Court.
  • A tattoo of King Neptune if you crossed the Equator.
  • Crossed anchors on the web between the thumb and index finger for a bosn�s mate.
  • Royal Navy tattoos of palm trees for the Mediterranean cruises in WWII.
  • Many US sailors have a palm tree or hula girl from Hawaii.
  • The words HOLD and FAST were tattooed on the knuckles to help hold line.
  • Hold Fast across the knuckles to keep them from falling overboard or dropping a line.
  • Anchor tattoo for sailing the Atlantic.
  • Full rigged ship for sailing around Cape Horn.
  • Dragon Tattoo for a sailor who had sailed into port in China
  • A Golden Dragon was for sailors who had crossed the International Date Line.
  • Rope around the wrist for being a dockhand.
  • Two stars to ensure always knowing the way.
  • The anchor usually noted that the sailor was in the merchant marine.
  • Guns or crossed cannon for military naval service.
  • Harpoons for the fishing fleet.
  • Crosses on the soles of one's feet to ward off hungry sharks.
  • A nautical star, or compass rose was to always find your way home.
  • A dagger through a rose signified a willingness to fight and kill even something as fragile as a rose.
  • Many sailors also got pornographic images so that they would always have them with them.

I have a very old book c.1910 where an old sailor be moans the end of the sailors tattoo, yea right. he expounds that. " on the forearm the ports you've visited. on the wrist 'bracelets' on the upper arm the girls name or initials. on the lower leg the initials of all the girls you've 'had'." The "MOM" tattoo became popular during WWII as well as the "death before dishonour" dagger piercing the skin. but that's with the USN in the Royal Navy, and presumably the Commonwealth navies,this is my info; full rigged ship (on the back very large) for rounding the horn (cape horn), The anchor (fouled or not) for service in the Atlantic. All remaining tattoos except since 1970 are in this discussion. Many 'modern' sailors have put tattoos of their specility or of the distinctive badge they had earned. like having crossed hammers with wings for aircraft carrier mechanics, or the divers helmet for a diver,etc. As for crossing the line. None of us Shellbacks want to repete this trial! You get a card. but some of us wisely have the longitude and date as well as ship on our upper leg. So if we ever get mistaken for a pollywog we can "show a leg" (naval term for 'get up out of bed!'.). 119deg 6min 54sec East USS SAMUEL GOMPERS 19 SEP 1991

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