Tattooing in Western culture owes its popularity to the sailors of the 1700s, who were inspired by the tattooed indigenous people they encountered when visiting the islands of Polynesiain the South Pacific. The word itself is believed to have derived from the Tahitian ta-taw – an onomatopoeic word mimicking the sound of Polynesian tattooing tools.
Life at sea was dangerous and a sailor’s nerves were constantly being tested by the elements. Knowing that at any moment a tempest could blast them into a watery grave made sailors a superstitious bunch. The symbols they had inked onto their bodies were more than just exotic souvenirs from distant lands. They told the story of where a sailor had travelled, if he had been around Cape Horn, crossed the Equator, or visited the Orient. They were good-luck charms or protective talismans, and it was not long before there existed an extraordinarily elaborate set of tattoo symbols that spoke a language all of their own.
Seeing a sailor with a tattoo of a turtle on its back legs, for example, would indicate that he had been to the equator, and if he had a rope tattooed around his wrist, you would know he was a dockhand. A cross on the sole of each foot was supposed to ward off hungry sharks should you be cast overboard, while an image of the North Star would ensure that you could always find your way home.
The origins of the very common pig-and-rooster tattoo are still contested. These animals were commonly carried on ships in buoyant wooden crates. If the ship sank, the crates would catch the currents and wash ashore along with other on-board debris. In such cases, the pigs and roosters could be the only living beings to survive. So perhaps these tattoos meant safety in the event of shipwreck.
Other explanations of the pig and rooster are that, since both animals are averse to water, you would be quick out of the sea in the event of accident, or that, since the animals can be taken to represent ham and eggs, the wearer of the tattoo would be safe from hunger!
Whatever the symbolism, tattoos have held deep meaning for sailors since the beginning of the 18th century. Here, using examples of the artwork of celebrated maritime-tattooist ‘Sailor Jerry’ (Norman Keith Collins), we take you through the meanings behind some other images you might see adorning the bodies of old sea-salts.
The first-known origins of the swallow tattoo date back to a mutiny on board a ship named The Swallow. The seven crew members who staged the mutiny each had a swallow tattooed on their chests so that they could identify their co-conspirators.
Since then, there have been a number of reasons for sailors to get the tattoo: the sight of a swallow (or sparrow or bluebird) at sea was a welcome one to any sailor, as they were usually the first sign that land was nearby and that a long voyage was nearing its end. The birds are known for always returning home and for mating for life. Thus the tattoo came to represent a safe journey back to land, and to symbolise loyalty.
A swallow also became a mark of experience. It was traditionally tattooed on the chest for every 5,000 nautical miles that a sailor had travelled. These journeys were riddled with hardships, starvation, sickness, and death, and so the more swallows the sailor had on his chest, the more experienced and respected he was.
DAGGER THROUGH A HEART
Although the meaning of a dagger-through-a-heart tattoo may vary, in general it symbolises the end of a love relationship due to unfaithfulness or betrayal. The slogan Death Before Dishonour, as seen in this design, is an enduringly popular tattoo among military units going back at least as far as Ancient Rome (morte prima di disonore). By the time of Roman senator and historian Tacitus, however, the vow ‘death before dishonour’ had become passé among Romans, but was instead adopted by the barbarians.Designed in a classicAmericanastyle with the incorporation of the bald eagle, this design hints at American patriotism. The dagger, of all the symbols used in this design, is probably the one seen most often with this motto, carrying with it a sense of seriousness, danger, and death.
Anchors became a popular tattoo design during the 18th century. The meaning behind the anchor derives from a sailor’s desire for stability at sea. In turbulent and changing waters, the anchor would keep sailors steady on board the ship and ground them in the same way a real anchor does a vessel. Longing for home also plays a part here, much as it does with the North Star motif: without an anchor, the ship would be cast adrift at sea, doomed to roam the waves forever. Their anchor tattoo offered sailors the hope of returning home.
The anchor symbol was not always so optimistic, however. When a ship or sailor is lost, the ‘sailor grave’ tattoo might be used to commemorate them. The design features an anchor, a life preserver, an eagle, and a sinking ship, all of which represent those lost as sea and the dangers of living a sailor’s life.
As women were forbidden at sea, and their presence was considered bad luck, sailors left their wives, girlfriends, and lovers behind in port. To ease their parting and to remind themselves of what they had waiting on their return, tattoo designs of women’s names and, later, actual women became popular.
Just like today, nautical pin-up girls, mermaids, and hula girls were all synonymous with the sailing lifestyle. Hula girls represented the allure of distant lands and the mystery of indigenous female natives. Mermaids, like sirens, stood for the draw of life at sea despite all its dangers. And the more recent pin-ups symbolised the women left behind at the last harbour – the girls the sailors had waiting for them should they safely return.
To read more about the superstitious meanings behind sailors’ tattoos and the life of Norman Keith Collins AKA Sailor Jerry, pick up the June issue Military History Monthly.