The Meaning Of Traditional Ship Tattoos

Tattoos and tattooing have been a part of human culture and civilization since its inception. We have found mummified human remains from the times of human hunter-gatherers and even on ancient Egyptian mummies.

In today’s world, tattoos are still a hugely integral part of many different cultures, especially among Austronesian and Polynesian cultures, and tattoos have had a huge revival in others.

Tattoos can tell the story of a person in their artwork, display symbols that hold deep meaning, or just be a piece of art that someone likes or holds dear, yet in the western world tattoos had to go through somewhat of a revival, as they had fallen out of fashion and practice completely.

The Meaning Of Traditional Ship Tattoos

How and why they came back is down to explorers and sailors, and the tattoos and symbolism of the tattoos they designed and wore became the traditional ship and maritime tattoos we know today.

With such a wide appeal among many people in not only America, but all over the world, it would be stupid of us not to explore the meaning of traditional ship and maritime tattoos in this article.


If we were to explore the entire history of tattoos, we would need a whole database and not just this article. As such, we will only explore traditional ship tattoos and the revival of tattoos in the Western world.

Yes, revival, as the popular belief ‘Cook myth’ that tattooing in the western world originated from Captain Cook’s voyages to the south pacific is false. Tattooing had been a common practice long before the 1800s, all the way back to Ancient Greece.

However, the practice had fallen out of favor with most people and eventually was abandoned entirely except for a select few: sailors, pilgrims to the holy lands, tradesmen, and those who had integrated into cultures where tattooing was the norm.

This was due to these groups of people interacting more with societies where it was acceptable and, in some cases, for spiritual reasons – the Jerusalem cross being a prime example.

However, this isn’t to say that Cook’s voyages did not have a profound effect on tattooing in the west, as it led to its complete revival in common culture.

When Cook landed in Tahiti in 1769, Cook made notes about the indigenous tattooing and body modification, this being the first case of the word tattoo in English, as it is derived from the Tahitian language.

While they were there, many of Cook’s men, ordinary sailors, received tattoos and returned to England with them, including his science officer Sir Joseph Banks.

In the public’s mind, this solidly associated tattooing with men of the sea and sailors, in the process, reintroduced tattooing as a common occurrence around Europe, especially in seaports which they used to spread the practice around the globe.

Thanks to their importance to tattoos’ global spread and the prevalence of tattoos among them, sailors have become synonymous with tattoos and in fact have attached their symbolism and meaning to tattoos themselves, leading to the rise of the traditional maritime tattoos that we know today.

Although a lot of people will talk about the importance of tattoos to subsets of western society, it all started and wouldn’t have been possible without the men and women of the sea.

Tattoo Variations And Their Meanings

Since their revival in western society in the 1700s, tattoos have exploded in popularity and tattooing has become an industry unto itself. Being the group of people at the forefront of this revival, sailors naturally have a selection of tattoos to choose from.

A lot of these tattoos can be quite simple, as the equipment that was available to sailors at that time was quite rudimentary and limited to what you can carry onto a ship. Even today, you will see sailors sporting rudimentary tattoos thanks to a lack of proper equipment in the open ocean.

However, even without more advanced equipment, these tattoos lack for nothing when it comes to meaning:

Ship Tattoos

Ship and nautical tattoos are iconic and owe much of their original design to a tattoo artist known as ‘Sailor Jerry’, real name Norman Collins.

The meaning behind these tattoos are often tied to the sea as a practical expression of your job, however they also represent a sense of voyage and adventure, with most retaining their classic rigging style to display this.

It is not so much the case anymore, but a fully rigged ship used to also show that that particular sailor had sailed Cape Horn, the southernmost point of South America, an incredible feat that was worth respect.

The differences in the ships can define other such ideas too, with pirate ships being rebellious and ghost ships displaying awareness of one’s own mortality.

anchor tattoo

Anchor Tattoos

Probably one of the most popular traditional ship tattoos, anchor tattoos represent what an anchor does on a normal ship: security and stability. When all else fails, an anchor can hold a ship in place.

As such, this tattoo is often accompanied by something in a person’s life that represents the same security and stability that an anchor does on a ship, for example ‘Mom’ is a popular choice for the emotional support Moms around the world provide us, the name of someone’s lover or sweetheart is also popular.

However, you can choose anything that may fit this role for you – someone I know has ‘Everton FC’ inside an anchor tattooed on their arm, due to his love of the club.

Swallow Tattoos

This tattoo probably has the most symbolism out of all the traditional sailing tattoos. Traditionally a British sailing symbol, it was used to denote a sailor’s experience on the sea, with a person normally receiving a swallow tattoo when they had travelled 5,000 nautical miles.

Before the 1960s, sailing great distances was difficult and could be extremely dangerous, so a sailor having more than one swallow tattoo portrayed a sailor of great experience and renown.

A swallow can also be associated with the will to return home or return to port, thanks to their migration patterns doing just that, as such the symbol is believed to help sailors have a safe voyage.

Heart Tattoos

Sailors, traditionally and in modern times, spent long periods at sea away from family, friends, and important social functions. This can be taxing on anyone but is especially hard when you know you may not return or that you will have to do this all over again a few weeks after this last voyage.

Heart tattoos were a way of keeping your loved ones close at all times and still function as such today, with many heart tattoos containing names of loved ones in them or having symbols that represented them around the heart.

Shark Tattoos

Among the creatures at the top of the ocean food chain and certainly its most feared predator in popular culture, Sharks have earned a sense of fear and an immense sense of respect from sailors for as long as there have been boats.

This respect is so great that sharks have earned their own tattoo that is somewhat of a protection charm, as it is meant to protect sailors from being eaten if they have fallen overboard.

However, another meaning has emerged that was born out of equal respect for these beautiful, if terrifying creatures: stand your ground. The tattoo tells others you will stand up for yourself in the face of aggression, be that from sharks or people.

Nautical Star Tattoos

Nautical stars are used by sailors for navigation and were often inked onto a ship’s crew with hope and prayers in mind. In the chaotic churning and grim reality of sea life, you would hope to stay on course and that nothing would prevent that, and that is what this tattoo was meant to do.

Final Thoughts

As among the first group of the revitalized western tattoos to be routinely used, traditional ship tattoos have a long and storied history that have their own superstitions and mythos around them.

Thanks to the constant need for shipping and the unpredictability of the sea, these beliefs have continued to this day and make for a fascinating addition to tattooing culture.

With the knowledge of how these tattoos came to be and what each of these tattoos represent, you can feel safe and comfortable in knowing exactly what you want and what you should get when deciding on one of these tattoos.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Do Tattoos Mean In The US Navy?

The same that they do for any other sailing institution: a great deal. Sailors in the US Navy have been using tattoos for the same reasons as other sailors for centuries, with the only difference being that they may attach different meanings to different tattoos, or they may include ones that aren’t used elsewhere.

For example, tattoos of Hawaii are most commonly associated with the US Navy, as it shows that this particular sailor was stationed there – and probably enjoyed the experience.

Why Are Tattoos Of Ships And Anchors Important?

These tattoos are important, because the objects that they depict are incredibly important to sailing. Ships are your home and your sanctuary on the high sea, they act as the oasis that allows you to survive in the ocean, and without them, we would never have explored the world.

Anchors are certainty and stability in the chaos of the ocean, they prevent your ship from drifting away in strong currents or moving off course while you work out where you are.

Anchors also stop your ship drifting away when you leave them for a period of time, making sure you aren’t stranded without a ship. Due to these reasons, sailors may want tattoos to convey the importance of these items and as a good luck charm that gives them the safety that both represent.

Who Was The First Person To Get A Traditional Ship Tattoo?

Unfortunately, that question is one that is impossible to answer and probably has been lost to time.

Many of the sailors on the Endeavor, Cook’s ship, got tattoos, but these were Tahitian and not traditionally maritime tattoos and apart from that we don’t have many records of other people with tattoos specifically of maritime lore.

However, the man who developed the American style of maritime tattoos most often used today was Norman Collins, aka Sailor Jerry. He learned to tattoo in the 1920s, before joining the US Navy in 1930, which exposed him to more art and culture.

Eventually, he settled in Honolulu, opening a tattoo studio and combining his love of tattooing and his love of the sea, creating the style of American maritime tattoo art that defines sailing tattoos now.

Peter Beaker