One image that often comes to mind in popular culture about sailors is tattoos. This popular image is rooted in centuries of nautical traditions. Beginning with the British Royal Navy in the 1700’s during their Tahitian voyages, British sailors were intrigued by the body art that the native Tahitians displayed. Eventually, the body art would travel to American sailors, where being tattooed became a permanent part of the maritime culture. During the American Revolution, the British often destroyed American citizenship papers, so sailors would tattoo their identification information to avoid illegal recruiting by the British Navy. By the mid-19th century. Many sailors would become amateur tattoo artists, using India ink to keep busy during down times in long voyages. “Shops” were set up wherever and whenever it was possible. Port towns became havens for tattoo businesses. It is said that Franklin Paul Rogers, known for his development of modern tattooing machinery, learned the trade from August Coleman who made a living in Norfolk, Virginia tattooing sailors.

A sailor getting a tattoo during WWII on the USS New Jersey

Early maritime tattoo designs were usually initials, names, and nautical symbols. Many of these symbols represented unique aspects of life on the high seas. For example, a sailor with a tattoo of a full-rigged sailing ship had completed the journey around Cape Horn. During the Civil War, tattoos of the clash between USS Monitor and CSS Virginia could be found being on sailor’s arms. After WWI, tattooing lost some of its social acceptance in America but remained popular in the military. They came to represent the places sailors had been. Dragons for Asia or Hulu girls for Hawaii. Some got a swallow for every 5,000 miles sailed.

In addition to indicating that a sailor had sailed 5000 miles, swallow tattoos are also associated with the idea of return. This “return” symbolism is rooted in two ideas. The first was the swallow’s famous migration pattern, always returning home to San Juan Capistrano. Second, it was believed that if a sailor dies at sea, birds carry his soul home to heaven.

In addition, it would not be the Navy without some superstition and tradition. Some sailors believed that tattooing a pig and a rooster on each foot would prevent them from drowning. During WWII, popular tattoos were symbols that reminded the sailors of the homes they had left behind. Names of girlfriends and wives or a hometown symbol. It was during this period that the popular pinup girl tattoos and mermaids became common. According to statistics, 65% of WWII sailors had tattoos, the highest of any of the military branches. The connection between the Navy and tattoos became so widely known that a song in the film There’s No Business Like Show Business references it:

Sailor’s Not A Sailor (’till A Sailor’s Been Tattooed) sung by Mitzi Gaynor and Ethel Merman
[Merman] I’m an old salt
[Gaynor] I’m a young salt
[Both] In the Navy we’ve been working very hard
[Merman] I was part of the Flotilla with Dewey in Manila
[Gaynor] I’m a new recruit at the Brooklyn Navy yard
[Both] Tonight we’re on a spree and feeling flow’ry
We’ve got a date with gals and drink and food
[Gaynor] Across the Brooklyn bridge and to the Bow’ry
[Merman] And I’m gonna get the kid tattooed
[Gaynor] Tattooed?
[Merman] Tattooed!
[Both] A sailor’s not a sailor ‘til a sailor’s been tattooed
[Merman] Here’s an anchor from a tanker
That I sailed upon when first I went to sea
Here’s another of my mother
Takes me back to when I sat upon her knee
Here’s a crimson heart with a Cupid’s dart
Here’s a Battle Cruiser and when I sit down
On that, too
There’s a tattoo
Of my hometown
[Gaynor] To the Bow’ry
[Merman] To the Bow’ry
[Gaynor] ‘Cross the Brooklyn Bridge and I’m just in the mood
[Merman] He’ll be filled with diff’rent mixtures
And covered up with pictures
[Gaynor] I can’t wait to be, ‘twill be great to be tattooed
[Merman] Tattooed?
[Gaynor] Tattooed!
[Both] A sailor’s not a sailor ‘till a sailor’s been tattooed

The superstition behind this tattoo has to do with the wooden cages where roosters and pigs were kept in on ships. When ships wrecked, the lightweight wooden frames became personal flotation devices, giving them a surprising survival rate. A sailor hoping for good luck would get a rooster tattoo on top of the right foot and a pig tattoo on top of the left.

Today’s booming tattoo culture has its maritime roots to thank. The connection of tattoos and sailors is so popular that in 2016, the US navy amended its policy on tattoos, considering 1 in 3 individuals were already sporting ink before joining. The new policy allowed neck tattoos, sleeves, and markings behind the ears. The only place off limits – a sailor’s head. When put in place, this policy was the most lenient of any of the branches. The change made many sailors happy, saying that higher officials were recognizing and accepting its own culture. In 2016, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Mike Stevens said, “We just got to the point where we realized we needed to be honest with ourselves and put something in place that was going to reflect the realities of our country and the needs of our navy. We need to make sure that we’re not missing any opportunities to recruit and retain the best and the brightest because of our policies.” Despite this easing in policy, tattoos that are Obscene, advocate discrimination or sexually explicit are still not allowed. The history of sailors and tattoos was documented in an exhibit at the Puget Sound Museum from 2015-2017 called “Skin Deep: The Nautical Roots of Tattoo Culture.” Tattoos will always be a part of Navy culture. Whether a sailor has ink or not- there is no denying its place in Navy traditions.

At sea, the anchor is the most secure object in a sailor’s life, making it the perfect representation of stability. This is why you’ll often see anchor tattoos emblazoned with “Mom” or the name of a sailor’s sweetheart (the people who keep them grounded). Anchors have become popular within general tattoo culture over the years, but the symbolism is still the same. It’s a reminder of what keeps you steady.