Nautical Tattoos: Symbolism and Meanings
Nautical tattoos speak their own language, and if you understand the symbolism and meanings behind them you can discern tons of information about a sailor without needing to speak a word. There are plenty of things in this information age that come and go, but the meanings behind nautical tattoos are as steadfast as the sailors who proudly wear them. Let's take a look at some of the most common nautical tattoos and the stories behind them from head to toe.
Speaking of head to toe, you'll want to make sure that your vessel is clean from bow to stern with out boat soap concentrate! That squeaky clean look won't be complete without a once over with our marine metal polish. The days of dirty ships and grizzled sailors is a thing of the past, we are only bringing the good parts of sailing into the future... Like all of the awesome symbolic tattoos!
For every 5000 nautical miles traveled a dedicated sailor might choose to decorate his body with another swallow. Why this bird in particular? Well, swallows are migratory birds that will travel 6000 miles from the UK to the Sahara in order to avoid the UK's inclement winters. If only sailors had a choice in the matter. Unlike those lucky birds, we must brave whatever comes.
Full Rigged Ship:
One of the only nautical tattoos on our list that I'd actually not be qualified to wear is a ship with full rigging. This tattoo symbolizes that a sailor has made their way around Cape Horn. The southernmost tip of South America features some rough waters, but fewer and fewer people qualify for this nautical tattoo thanks to the building of the Panama Canal.
A nautical star is a sailing tattoo that represents the north star. You can find this one anywhere on the body but the forearms or collarbone seem to be the most popular choices from what I've seen. With a nautical star adorning their body, a sailor will never need to worry about being lost. If they do end up lost, this star is sure to guide them back home.
If you see a sailor with a turtle tattoo it means that they've been initiated into Neptune's court. How does one get initiated into Neptune's court? By crossing the equator, of course! This is another one that can be seen almost anywhere though I've seen quite a few shellbacks on shoulders, calves, and the old reliable forearm.
Everyone that I served with had the distinction of being qualified for the crossed cannons. Not really a huge surprise, considering that we were all serving in the Navy. Yes indeed, this nautical tattoo represents naval military service. Whenever I see someone with a pair of crossed cannons I know for sure that we have at least one topic that we can discuss at great length.
A single anchor might symbolize that the person you're looking at is a merchant marine. Alternatively, it could mean that a sailor has crossed the Atlantic. Usually it means both at the same time. Those merchant marines tend to get around! It might also mean neither... I've met my fair share of sailors that simply got an anchor tattoo because they enjoyed boating. Nothing wrong with that. The meaning is becoming a bit diluted however so if there is any doubt? Just ask!
The one and only place you can find hula girls is Hawaii, so I suppose it makes good sense that a sailor would want to leave the island with a souvenir inked into their skin. I really like this tattoo if it's placed in just the right spot on your forearm you can make that little hula girl dance. Might not seem like much but after 6 months at sea? You'll be glad to have it! Haha.
If you see a braided rope tattooed around a sailor's wrist indicates that a sailor works as a deckhand, or at least served some time working as a deckhand. If I spent as much time around rope as the average deckhand, a tattoo of rope is the last thing I'd want but you can't fight tradition!
A pair of crossed anchors on the webbing between the thumb and forefinger signifies that sailor as a boswain's mate. The duties of a boswain's mate are extremely varied, but they do all require some degree of teamwork which is illustrated by the two anchors coming together.
Tattoos across the knuckles are pretty cool, but they aren't for everyone. I've heard people call them 'everlasting job stoppers' and that isn't far from the truth, but if you're willing to put in some hard physical labor then getting hired is a given. HOLD FAST is a nautical tattoo for your knuckles that supposedly increases your grip on lines and rigging. I might've gotten this one myself, but instead I went for "PROU DOFU".
Pig and/or Rooster:
You might see a sailor with a pig or rooster tattooed on their feet. Once upon a time these were common nautical tattoos for sailors who didn't know how to swim. These days finding a sailor who doesn't know how to swim is akin to searching out a needle in a haystack, but these foot tattoos are still thought to stop people from drowning.
We've got more nautical superstitions to discuss if you're interested!