Some Facts About Old School Sailor Nautical Tattoos


Some history about nautical tattoos: Long time ago, as far back as the 16th century, sailors are known to have had tattoos. These were part of the souvenirs they brought back from the Pacific islands. In the 17th century, there are some records that talked about the tattoos which were called the ”tatus” in the Polynesian language and tattoos were seen on many native folks. In those days, the tattoos were done by sailors on each other using things like urine and gunpowder as ink.


What was the symbolism?

A huge part of these tattoos were actually in memory to commemorate a stage in the sailor’s life like voyages, love of country, or to mark some visits to specific places or their victories.  Many of those tattoos, however, were considered good luck talismans by the sailors to keep off bad influences.

Folks who are part of the sea are known to be superstitious which is natural given to their line of work which involves the humongous and unpredictable sea. Their need to keep good omens about their person was not totally uncalled for.

Here are some of the tattoo meanings:

Milestone tattoos

    • A sparrow tattoo is something that shows the traveling of a 5000 nautical miles


    • The anchor tattoo – A sailor would get the anchor tattooed once he had crossed the Atlantic ocean. What is more than the anchor since it is what keeps the ship attached to the bottom of the sea, and so they were considered a symbol of faith that is stable and unwavering. Sometimes adding the word “Dad” or “Mom” along with this makes it more significant.


    • A dragon tattoo – was used to simply denote that the sailor in question had been to China or had served in a China station


    • A golden dragon – this denoted the crossing of the International date line which is an imaginary line along the surface of the earth


  • The fully rigged ship  – is supposed to denote that the sailor has sailed around the Cape Horn.

5.rigged ship

Luck: tattoos

    • Hold fast tattoos – this would be a reminder to the lines fast when the ship is on the water in poor weather.

6.Hold fast tattoos

    • Rooster and pig tattoo –  It is supposed to denote the surviving of a sailor from a shipwreck. Both these animals are often put in wooden crate on board the ship, and when the ship capsizes the crates would float along the current and was likely to wash to the shore.


    • Twin propellers tattoo  – Done on each butt cheek is to help in prevent people from drowning and these are supposed to propel you to the shore.

8.Twin propellers tattoo

    • A swallow tattoo – these are migratory birds who can always find the way home. Sailors like the symbolism of being always being able to make it to the shore and thereby to  home and back to the company of the loved ones. On the other hand, swallows are known to carry the souls of dead people off to heaven.


    • The nautical star tattoo –  this is representative of the North Star which is used for navigation on water. It is meant to guide you back to safety.

10.nautical star tattoo

Memento tattoos

    • A dagger running through a swallow tattoo is supposed to symbolize the loss of a comrade

11.Dander running swallow tattoo

Identification tattoos

    • Crossed anchors tattoo – When done between the index finger and thumb is supposed to denote a Boatswain mate. On the left hand it meant a sailor who sailed all oceans and on the right hand it indicated a sailor who had been on the Seven seas.

12.Crossed anchors tattoo

    • A harpoon tattoo meant a fishing fleet member

13.harpoon tattoo

    • A rope tattoo on the wrist was indicative of a deckhand

14.rope tattoo

    • Cross cannon or gun tattoos denote Military Naval service members

15.Cross cannon

  • An Anchor tattoo meant a Merchant Marine

Girlies on tattoos

    • Pinup girls: When working on the sea, sailors would leave behind the special women in their lives on the land. Sailors would often have girls tattooed on their bodies to keep reminding them of all the reasons that they needed to make it safely back home.

16.Pinup girls

    • Mermaid tattoos: These magical creatures which are half fish and half human are said to have the power to enchant sailors and lead them to their demise in the sea with their lovely songs. This was supposed to be a metaphor to how seductive the sea can be in spite of the dangers.

17.Mermaid tattoo

    • Hula girl tattoos indicated a sailor who has visited Hawai.

18.hula girl tattoo

In case you are looking for ideas for nautical tattoos, you can research the works of August Coleman, Franklin Paul Rogers, Norman Collins who are the pioneers in Traditional American tattoos.

To get more ideas in this regard, look at various tattoo designs and pick one or you customize one of them to suit your requirements and needs.