Bay Lights Blog

Nautical Sailor Tattoos: Meaning and Tradition

by Rich Goldman

Tattooing is an art that dates back many thousands of years. Once perceived as a hallmark of various countercultural movements, tattoos in the United States are now widely accepted. A plenitude of styles, symbols, and techniques have emerged and evolved over the years. But some traditions hold fast, especially the art of nautical sailor tattoos. Although they are decorative and colorful, tattoo art frequently carries profound symbolic meaning for the wearer, and sailing tattoos are no exception.

Related Blog: The Stuff of Legends: Ghost Ships

With a rich history tracing back to the 16th century, nautical sailor tattoos were adapted by sailors from people already inhabiting the Polynesian shores, who knew them as tatus. These sailing themed tattoos served as permanent mementos for the mariners to proudly sport on their arms, backs, hands, and more. As a method to display their patriotism, successes, superstitions, and nautical prowess, the needle, and the ink heeded the call.

Norman Collins, aka Sailor Jerry, was one of the most renowned tattoo artists of his day (1911-1973) and is widely revered as the father of the old school tattoo. His artistic nautical designs were emulated throughout his career and continue to be incorporated into modern tattoo iconography today.

Popular Nautical Tattoos Decoded

While there are some slight variations among meanings based on who you ask, we have compiled some top interpretations for nautical tattoos symbology.

A quality tattoo of a Fully Rigged Ship should be accurately represented in ink, bearing at least three fully deployed masts with meticulous attention to detail. The image bears multi-faceted meaning: an unmistakable call for adventure that only a ship on the sea can invoke, and for the comfort of heading homeward bound safely. A fully rigged ship tattoo can also mean that the wearer has sailed and valiantly survived the wild waters of Cape Horn.

Swallow tattoos are an indication that the sailor has traversed 5,000 nautical miles. Because of the birds' migration patterns, swallows also represent a homecoming. The winged creatures have been further likened as bearers of a fallen sailor, flying his soul back to heaven.

A Nautical Star is enticing to the eye. But these stars hold a special meaning for those called to the open water. The star stands for the North Star, historically used as a sailor's compass home. In the sailor's aesthetic, the nautical star could help keep them on course, on sea and on land alike.

Anchors represent stability, a grounding force amidst the unpredictable whims of the waters. Many Navy servicemen seek an anchor tattoo to signify that they have crossed the Atlantic Ocean. The anchor is frequently further adorned with the name of the bearer's treasured loved one, who may also act as a grounding energy in the person's life.

Pin Up Girl tattoos are popular among many demographics. But in nautical sailor tattoos, they serve to remind their wearers of the sweethearts that wait for them faithfully back home.

Clearly, the adventures awaiting on the seas have been alluring and thrilling throughout time, and with great appeal. Even so, a safe return home was always on sailors' minds, and the tradition of nautical sailor tattoo art reflects just that.

Modern Sailing, Tattoos Optional

At Bay Lights Charters, we offer an unforgettable sailing experience around the San Francisco Bay for adventurers coming from all walks of life. Our 19th-century style vessel, GAS LIGHT, was modeled after the scow schooners that distributed goods throughout the area during that time. Come experience a bit of history and fun with our customizable excursions.

For more information about the sailing event of a lifetime across the waters of San Francisco's famous Bay, contact us today!

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