October 24th, 2016

The Art of the Sailor

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The Art of the Sailor

When Captain Cook returned from his expedition to Tahiti in 1771, many of his crew, including the renowned naturalist Sir Joseph Banks, returned with tattoos having seen the body art of the indigenous people.

By the 19th century tattooing had spread to British society but was still mainly associated with sailors. Sailors, in fact, used the art of tattooing as a form of communication and not just decoration, assigning meaning to numerous designs.

The different tattoos and what they traditionally symbolised are summarised below so that next time you bump into an ancient mariner you may not need to ask where he has been – although for some of these they would need very old indeed!

Fully Rigged Ship
A sailor has been around Cape Horn

Nautical Star

So a sailor could always find their way home

Shellback Turtle
Earned when initiated into King Neptune’s Court after crossing the Equator

Crossed Cannons
Signified military naval service

Hold Fast
HOLD and FAST were written across the knuckles on each of the sailor’s hands in the hopes of giving a sailor a good grip on the rigging

A knot of rope around the wrist indicated a sailor’s rank as a deckhand


A single anchor told that a sailor had crossed the Atlantic or was part of the Merchant Mariners

Tattooed for every 5000 nautical miles they travelled

Compass Rose
So a sailor could always their way home

Crosses on the soles of one’s feet warded off hungry sharks

Dagger Through a Rose
A sailor was loyal and willing to fight off anything, even something as sweet as a rose

A sailor had served in China

Golden Dragon
Tattooed when a sailor had crossed the International Date Line

A marker of a whaler or a member of a fishing fleet

King Neptune
As with the Shellback Turtle, this was earned when a sailor crossed the Equator

Palm Tree
Royal Navy sailors during World War II who took part in Mediterranean cruises were tattooed with a palm tree, as were U.S. sailors who spent time in Hawaii

With tattoos so common place today amongst all ages, I wonder if Captain Cook could possibly have imagined how far reaching this art form would become following his initial observations on those far flung sandy beaches so many years ago!