The Art of the Sailor

Posted: January 21, 2019 at 7:29 am

We take a look at the traditions of tattoos in the seafaring community and their meanings.

Sailing culture is rich in tradition and superstition, tattoos have become one of the more popular traditions among mariners. Often described as a graphic language, tattoos are a way for seafarers to express themselves through body art as well as a means of identifying themselves across languages and cultures. Over the years tattoos have been used to record important events or experiences, to identify naval hierarchy, rank, status, membership and other significant life events.

Examples of popular symbols within the seafaring community are:

  • Anchor: Refers to a sailor who has achieved the rank of Boatswain or Chief, though historically indicated sailing across the Atlantic.
  • Dragon: Refers to a sailor that has served in Asia.
  • Fully Rigged Ship: Represents traversal of Cape Horn.
  • Golden Dragon: Means a sailor has crossed the International Date Line.
  • Harpoon: Refers to a member of the fishing fleet.
  • Rope around the wrist: Represents a sailor who is or was a deckhand.
  • “Hold Fast” across the knuckles: This has been literally described as a reminder for deck hands to Hold Fast to the rigging in rough weather.
  • Swallow: Initially obtained when first setting to sea, now traditionally received for each increment of 5,000 miles sailed. It is believed that Swallows are popular as they will always return to their home following migration.
  • Chicken and Pig: Usually tattooed on each foot to protect the sailor from drowning in a shipwreck. This is from chicken and pigs said to survive wrecks because their wooden shipping containers kept them afloat.

There are many other meaningful traditional tattoos for sailors – which can you think of? If you’d like to share your tattoos with us tag us on Instagram @cmrjobsatsea or #cmrjobsatsea and we’ll share them!

 

Artist Credit Lucy Bellwood: You can purchase this print if you like it!