Polar Bear, Turtles, & Hearts: The True Meaning Behind Sailor Tattoos
For hundreds of years, Sailor tattoos have been a tradition within the Navy. Sailors would tattoo themselves and each other to have what they called a souvenir from their travels. But, the Sailors didn’t just get any ordinary tattoo. Each Sailor would often get a tattoo that symbolized and communicated to other Sailors what they accomplished during their service.
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The History Behind Sailor Tattoos
Sailors began giving themselves tattoos and bringing them back to Europe from the Pacific Islands during the 16th Century. Captain John Hook’s diary holds the first written record of Sailor tattoos, as he saw them while traveling around the world.
Now, you may be wondering what tools they used to give themselves tattoos. Today, we use a needle and ink in a super sterile environment to do tattoos, but with the limited supplies that Sailors had, they resorted to using gunpowder and urine to make their ink. While their way of making ink is rather unsanitary, it does seem to be a pattern for Sailors.
Sailors have always had their superstitions, so it’s not a surprise that old Sailor tattoos were believed to bring them luck. Each Sailor tattoo has its own meaning, whether that be a mark of a milestone, a reminder of a place, an experience, a triumph, or a symbol of patriotism.
The Meanings Behind Sailor-Style Tattoos
Anchor Tattoos: If a Sailor has a single anchor tattoo, it means that they’ve either sailed the Atlantic Ocean or were a member of the Merchant Marines. While a Sailor is out at sea, the anchor is the most secure and stable item they have, and the anchor tattoo represents that stability that they hope to have throughout their lives.
Nautical Star: This is a symbol that means that a Sailor is always able to find their way home. It resembles a compass rose.
Fully Rigged Ships: The meaning behind this tattoo is that the Sailor has made it through the rough, stormy waters around Cape Horn.
Swallows: Sailors earn a swallow tattoo for every 5,000 miles they’ve traveled.
Lighthouse: The lighthouse is worn to bring light, hope, and protection to Sailors.
Hold and Fast: The words “hold” and “fast” were often tattooed on the front of the Sailors’ fingers. These words were thought to bring Sailors good luck when holding the line. Holding fast means that the Sailor will not let go no matter what.
Polar Bear: The polar bear tattoo is a rare one to find, but this means that a Sailor has crossed the Arctic Circle.
Shellback Turtle: Sailors usually get this tattoo once they’re initiated into Neptune’s Court after successfully crossing the equator for the first time.
Pig and Rooster: The pig and the rooster were typically worn on each foot and were believed to hopefully keep the Sailor from drowning. During WWII, these tattoos were exceedingly popular because they kept pigs and roosters on the Navy ships, and when the ships sank, the animals in their crates would float and sometimes be the only ones that survived.
Golden Dragon: When a Sailor sported the golden dragon tattoo, it was because they successfully crossed the International Date Line.
Shark: This tattoo shows what the Sailor has overcome during his time in the service. The meaning behind the shark tattoo is that the person is willing to stand their ground and will not allow others to use them as a doormat.
Rope on the Wrist: A Sailor with a rope tattoo on their wrist has identified themselves as a deckhand. Deckhands maintain the hull, deck, cargo handling, mooring, and superstructure.
Palm Tree: Palm tree Sailor tattoos symbolize that either the Sailor served in Hawaii or they sailed on Mediterranean cruises.
Hula Girls: This tattoo is also a symbol that a Sailor has served in Hawaii.
Mermaids: Mermaids are a reminder of how dangerous and exciting the sea is, as mermaids were said to seduce Sailors into the sea towards their death. It’s usually the sign of a humble Sailor who never forgets the dangers of the sea.
Pin-Up Girls: These tattoos were a reminder to Sailors of their wives and girlfriends they left at home who were waiting for their return.
Dagger Through a Rose: This tattoo symbolizes that the Sailor who wears it is loyal and willing to fight anything for their family, be it their blood family or their Sailor comrades.
Heart: The Sailor heart tattoo is another symbol of Sailors keeping their loved ones close. The hearts often had the names of their mothers, wives, or girlfriends in the center.
Harpoon: The harpoon tattoo symbolized that the Sailor was actively serving or previously served within a whaling or fishing fleet.
Grave: The Sailor grave tattoo was worn when a ship or a Sailor was lost. It stood as an honorary remembrance.
Sailor tattoos were a part of the Navy long before tattoos were no longer accepted in the military. Though not all of these tattoos and tattoo meanings hold up today, you can still find many older generations of Sailors sporting some of the traditional Sailor tattoos. While being away at sea for so long, it was no wonder Sailors had created these tattoos to help symbolize their accomplishments made along the way.