nautical tattoos

Posted in arts of the sailor, tattoos by bowsprite on 2011/12/14

Written and researched by Owen Burke, Brian Lam of The Scuttlefish:

Hold written on one set of knuckles and Fast written on the other was meant to give a sailor good grip in the rigging.

A Rope tattooed around the wrist meant that a seaman is a deckhand.

A tattoo of an Anchor told that a sailor had crossed the Atlantic, or was part of the Merchant Marines.

Crossed Anchors 
on the webbing between the thumb and index fingers marked a bos’n’s (or boatswain’s) mate.

Nautical Star or Compass Rose was given so that a sailor could always find her way home.

A Harpoon marked a member of the fishing fleet.

A Full-Rigged Ship displayed that a sailor has been around Cape Horn.

A Dragon signified that a sailor has served in China.  A Golden Dragon was given when a sailor crossed the International Date Line.

A Shellback Turtle or King Neptune was earned when a sailor made it across the Equator.

or Crossed Cannons signified military naval service.

A Sparrow or a Swallow tattoo would go to a sailor for every 5,000 nautical miles they traveled–a swallow because it can always find its way home.
Royal Navy sailors during WWII who took part in Mediterranean cruises were tattooed with a Palm Tree, as were U.S. sailors who spent time in Hawaii.
A Dagger Through A Rose meant a sailor was loyal, and willing to fight anything, even something as sweet as a rose.
During WWII, a tattoo of a Pig and a Rooster was worn to prevent a sailor from drowning. When pigs and roosters were boarded on boats they were put in crates that floated and subsequently, often ended up the only survivors of wrecks. Crosses on the Soles of one’s feet warded off hungry sharks.
Thanks, Brian and Owen of Scuttlefish!

26 Responses

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  1. Michael said, on 2011/12/14 at 12:20

    1. What about Queequeg’s tattoos?
    2. An octopus tattoo signifies that a mariner has sailed on all eight seas

  2. Hooshe said, on 2011/12/14 at 12:26

    These are lovely!

  3. Jamin Wells said, on 2011/12/14 at 12:31

    Don’t forget about Ishmael’s tatts!

  4. Peter Gander said, on 2011/12/14 at 12:53

    Fascinating and beautifully done, as ever ; )

  5. wendy said, on 2011/12/14 at 13:03

    Very cool! I believe there’s also supposed to be one if you are a “Golden Shellback” where you’ve crossed 180-degree meridian and the Equator at the same time, which I thought might be a compass.

  6. tugster said, on 2011/12/14 at 17:26

    i’ve never submitted to any permanent ink and am probably too fluid to ever do so. yet one of the most fascinating books i read as a youngish teenager was “illustrated man” by ray bradbury. the movie version i’ve seen is dull. i’ve always wanted to do an updated version of bradbury . . . although given the classic it is, it stands up to time fairly well. ink your imagination . . .

  7. tugster said, on 2011/12/14 at 17:28

    oh . . . i LOVE the redhead with the dragonized back!

  8. Vladimir Brezina said, on 2011/12/14 at 18:05

    Beautifully done, as always! And I like the way many of those sailors seem to be female… 🙂

  9. mookoo1Michael said, on 2011/12/14 at 18:23

    I alone lived to tell the tale.

    and Tugster hell yeah temporary tattoos are fantastic! I had a most excellent dagger, rose and snake on my arm some years ago. Signified my learning to tie a bowline.

  10. Marc Van de Velde said, on 2011/12/14 at 20:42

    You just passed Herge.

  11. o docker said, on 2011/12/15 at 04:00

    Speaking of classic nautical tatts:

    She once swept an Admiral clear off his feet.
    The ships on her hips made his heart skip a beat.
    And now the old boy’s in command of the fleet,
    for he went and married Lydia!

  12. mthew said, on 2011/12/15 at 10:58

    This was great. Love the illustrations and the history.

  13. Barista Uno said, on 2011/12/16 at 03:15

    Simply splendid.

  14. Mage Bailey said, on 2011/12/16 at 19:21

    I’m in love. These are better than delightful. Charming too. I’m your fan forever.

  15. […] for December 19, 2011: England ExpectsBy Monkey Fist On December 18, 2011 Tweet Print ThisEmail Thisnautical tattoos; history and art illustrations by BowspriteSomething England DIDN’T Expect:Friday, December 16th […]

  16. Ben Dover said, on 2011/12/19 at 06:14

    Nice article gents, but you need to clean-up the terminology a bit. Merchant Marine (no “s”) are the ships engaged in a nation’s commercial shipping. A Merchant Mariner is a member of the merchant marine. Marines fight the war. Mariners bring them the gear.

  17. The Wedding Guest said, on 2011/12/19 at 13:30

    Nicely done, nicely drawn! Regarding “HOLD FAST,” the Ancient Mariner had his oriented a bit differently with the letters turned 90 degrees W as well as those on the right hand being in the reverse order (i.e., H on the index finger, etc.). That way, he could literally get the message when hauling on a line.

  18. EriLong said, on 2011/12/29 at 01:17

    good! Thanks you!

  19. co said, on 2011/12/29 at 11:19

    Bowsprite! I LOVED this post and only wished I had had a life I could have earned any of these.

    Would love to touch base with you… Sent you an email but it kicked back. Happy holidays!


  20. Derek AB said, on 2012/01/19 at 23:18

    I have enough nautical miles that I’d have very little space left after the sparrow tats. Few of us talked about doing them and changing the meaning to 5 years of sea time.. 5,000 miles is nothing nowadays. The trip tomorrow me and the crew are making from nola to south America alone one way is 6,400 nautical mile and going to take around 60 days at sea.

  21. RAUL CASTRO said, on 2012/01/27 at 00:22


  22. […] nautical tattoos ( […]

  23. Kelly said, on 2012/05/25 at 14:20

    Love that!!!!! ❤

  24. […] Nautical Tattoos […]

  25. Charles Smith said, on 2012/08/20 at 08:18

    What happened to the Squareknot Sailo

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