Sailor tattoos. What are the most famous ones and what do they mean

sailor tattoos
Sailor tattoos. Not much is known about Captain Elvy’s life, except that throughout his service in the ranks of the U.S. Navy (1940s), he was something of an “attraction phenomenon” due to his body being totally covered in tattoos. A large sailing ship and an American flag with the words “United we stand” (“together we are strong”) can be seen in the center back.

What are the meanings of sailor tattoos? A custom that comes from afar and reveals Why tattoos should never be even…

Sailor tattoos – How the legend was born

A very strong connection ties the tattoo world to sailors and seafaring. This type of permanent design was imported by Dutch sailors returning from their many trade voyages to Polynesia in the 18th century, where tattoos were a widespread practice among indigenous peoples. In this part of the world, sailors knew typical ocean-related decorations. For seafarers, imprinting designs on their skin increasingly became a superstitious custom to be performed before each departure.

A sailor was always required to have an odd number of tattoos: the first one was to be made at the beginning of the voyage, the second at the port of arrival, and the third on the return to his or her homeland. Not getting a third clearly would have sanctioned bad luck and distance from loved ones: hence the custom of odd tattoos. Returning from their voyages, seafarers thus always had the traces of the peoples they visited on them, and these drawings began to fascinate European citizens. Images that harkened back to a seafaring tradition, of men living in symbiosis with the sea and life on board.


The most famous ones

The dagger

The dagger has always been the means used by sailors to take justice for themselves. This weapon, usually depicted on the forearm, symbolizes justice, war, death, or the ability to defend oneself.

sailor tattoos - Dagger

In ancient times the dagger was the last defense of a warrior who, after losing all other weapons, was left only with his dagger and fighting skills.


The swallow

The swallow is a kind of Mille Miglia card. For every 5,000 miles traveled, a sailor should get a swallow tattoo. One swallow after the first 5,000 miles, a second when you get to 10,000, a third at 15,000, and so on.

sailor tattoos - swallow

The swallow is closely related to the British maritime experience, where even members of the Royal Navy used to tattoo swallows on their wrists to symbolize a successful feat.


The wind rose

The compass rose is one of the most popular tattoos. It generally represents what in the open sea is the prime mover of sustenance and movement: the winds that blow from all directions.

The symbolism plays between gain and loss, victory and defeat, and on the double face of the wind: at once dangerous and indispensable to the lives of sailors and their sailboats.


The heart

The heart is used by sailors usually accompanied by a scroll that reads the name of the girlfriend, wife or more simply mother.

sailor tattoos - heart

The heart is an emblem of love and relationships between loved ones, which are tattooed to symbolize the presence of affection even many miles away from home.


The sailing ship

The sailing ship for a sailor far from home symbolizes his universe. An adoptive mother made of wood and metal, the symbol of sustenance and technology.

the sailing ship

The sailing ship is a mobile homeland and has always been a traditional theme of those who have no fixed abode and sail the seas far and wide to make a living. It can also stand for a difficult and troubled period in life that one is going through.


The anchor

The anchor is among the most popular tattoos belonging to this genre. You may also remember him on fictional characters such as Popeye.

sailor tattoos still

A tattoo that is an unmistakable symbol of the sea and sailors, and still enjoys extreme popularity today. The anchor, as with ships, stands for safety and stability, values among the most important for those who have entrusted their lives and livelihoods to the sea.


The woman

The woman in maritime tattoos is represented by two main images: that of the mermaid and that of the pin-up. Sirens are mythical creatures that inhabit the seas, capable of attracting and stunning sailors.

mermaid sailor tattoos

Thousands of stories tell the tales of fearless sailors and the beautiful half-woman, half-fish maidens. Sirens have always been a symbol of the sea’s fascination with men, a symbol also of feminine energy and the danger inherent in it: the ability to attract men and make them lose their light of reason. Beautiful and dangerous: just like the women loved by sailors.

pin up

The pin-up also embodies this strong connotation related to perdition.The pin-up represents one of the reasons why sailors return to the lands from which they set sail and where they fell in love.


The Sailor Jerry Myth

Almost all of the sailor tattoos accompanying the article are Sailor Jerry’s. Artist Norman Keith Collins (1911-1973), better known by the nickname Sailor Jerry, is the founder of the old school of tattooing. A Californian by birth, he learned the art of tattooing in Alaska, making his first designs strictly by hand.

sailor tattoos
Sailor Jerry, the king of sailor tattoos, at work.

What will change Sailor Jerry’s life, and the history of tattoos, is his enlistment in the U.S. Navy. Exposed to the rudimentary but innovative tattoos of sailors, he took them up to invent his own style, made up of themes and techniques still copied today by tattoo artists halfway around the world.

Anchors, wind roses, sailing ships, mermaids, pin-ups, swallows, daggers-these are the most recurring themes, harkening back to an ideal of dissolute living, which is somewhat the stereotype that has always been attached to those in the sea life. Sailor Jerry ended his life in Hawaii where he moved to devote himself full-time to tattoos until the day he died in 1973.

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