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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Maritime Tattoos


Sailors in the military have a long history of tattooing. Certain symbols have been associated with service in different countries. British sailors were tattooed with swallows, which was often a visual representation of 5,000 nautical miles sailed. Swallows are a land bird, but are found throughout the temperate world including Europe, Africa, the Americas and Asia. Swallow tattoos have adorned military sailors in several Western cultures. The nautical star is commonly seen on military servicemen from the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps, representing the shape of the stars on the U.S. flag and the dual-tone coloring of compass roses on historic nautical charts.

General Watercraft-

In addition to the battleship pictured above, some sailors' vessels were represented through tattoo. This seemed to occur more frequently in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, which is understandable considering sailors from earlier centuries did not serve continuously aboard a single vessel. Another recent trend has been historic vessel tattoos, such as the tattoo of the historic warship Vasa shown below.

Monsters and Sea Creatures-

Sea monsters and creatures from the deep have always fascinated people. There has always been a subtle but pervasive fear of the ocean, which is in part due to it being a different and in many ways a dangerous element. A monster puts a face to that fear. Tattoos of sea monsters and sea creatures look "tough" and usually indicate a love of the ocean. Octopi and sharks are fairly common tattoos. As tattooing becomes more popular and people search for unique designs and patterns, expect to see more historic representations of sea monsters and sea creatures (real and unreal) in the future.


Similar to the use of historic representations of sea creatures, some people are getting inked with tribal representations of sea animals and fish that were not typically depicted in tattoos, but rather on houses or objects. Traditional tribal tattoos are also becoming more common, both among members of a tribe or group and among non-members.

These tribal tattoos often represented coming of age, such as the v-shape for women in Papua New Guinea, of the elaborate face tattoos of Maori, indicating lineage and status. The whorls frequently found in Polynesian tattoos carry multiple meanings. The shape is similar to Polynesian fish hooks and the meaning is frequently ascribed as the coming together and divergence of people. Similar to the settlement pattern of these islands themselves, people carried by wave and wind to islands throughout the Pacific.

Some people are tattooed with this because it is their heritage, while some people are adopting these tribal tattoos because they are aesthetically pleasing. For those tattooed in the tradition of their culture, tribal tattoos on other people can appear trite or demeaning to their cultural heritage. It can also feel like personal theft and insult, especially the sacred forms of tattoo such as Moko.

Blog Posts

This is a wonderful post on historical maritime tattoos including the common themes and some of the reasons for their popularity.

Modern maritime tattoos-

Scholarly Articles

An article from National Geographic, "Skin as Art and Anthropology" describes what tattoos mean to different people.

Dissertation by Mary Bowman, "Ink, Image, and Initiation".

An introduction to tattoos as identifiers in autopsies and medical examinations, "Tattoo and Tattooing Part I: History and Methodology" by Kris Sperry, M.D.


Tattoo: An Anthropology by Makiko Kuwahara
Tattoo History: A source book by Steve Gilbert
Tattoos and Indigenous Peoples by Judith Levin
Tattooed: The Sociogenesis of a Body Art by Michael Atkinson

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Maritime Culture by Whitney Rose Petrey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License