Tattoo Designs & Symbols

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Tattoo designs - N >> Nautical

Nautical tattoo symbols and designsNautical or Maritime Tattoo Meanings - are tattoos derived from the very roots and history of modern tattooing. Sailors were among the first to revive the art and practice of tattooing when they visited the islands of Polynesia in the South Pacific and other lands in Southeast Asia. Captain Cook in his famous explorations to Tahiti, Hawaii and New Zealand was the first to record the tattooing of the indigenous people in 1786. The word tattoo in the English language come from the Tahitian word, 'ta-taw', which was thought to mimic the sound made by the traditional Polynesian tattooing implements as they made a tattoo. When the sailors returned to Europe with tattoos that were essentially exotic souvenirs of their travels and adventures, European audiences were fascinated.

Life at sea was hard and only the toughest men survived. Sailors, being at the mercy of the wind and the sea and the elements, and the very capriciousness of Mother Nature, were a very superstitious lot. It did not take long for them to build up an extraordinarily elaborate set of tattoo symbols that spoke a language all their own. Tattoos told the story of were a sailor had traveled, if he had been around Cape Horn or crossed the Equator, if he had visited the Orient.

Many nautical tattoos were amulets and talismans of protection to keep from falling overboard, drowning or being eaten by a shark.

From tattooing the words on their knuckles, to numerous tattoo designs and symbols like the Nautical Star that were meant to keep them safe and guide them safely back to their home port. Many sailors used to tattoo images of their full-rigged ships on their bodies, often taking up large spaces on their chest, backs and arms to pay respects to their homes upon the waves. Often times, despite their often raucous and rowdy lifestyle, many sailors would have religious images and icons tattooed upon their backs, sometimes even full Psalms or the Lord's Prayer. Part of this was to remind themselves to be virtuous, but it was also believed that you were less likely to as flogged as severely if you got twenty lashes across your back for misbehaving!

The expression Stewed, Screwed and Tattooed comes from this Maritime tradition - it was a colourful synopsis of shore leave for many sailors after having spent many months at sea! A good port of call for men who worked at sea often earned it's reputation by the qualities - or lack thereof - of it's drinking establishments, women and tattoo artists.

Nautical Inspiration Gallery - Click here to get inspired!And of course many sailors at sea often thought of their families and the girls they had left behind in port, whether it was one port or two ports or even more! Mermaids and pin-up girls, hearts and the names of loved ones were always popular with sailors.

Get inspired by some really great images and photos in our Nautical Inspiration Gallery

See also: Nautical Tattoo Index, Marine Life Tattoos

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Some Sailor Tattoo Traditions

Tattooing HOLD on the fingers of the right hand, just below the knuckles, and FAST in the same place on the left hand, in the hopes that it would keep the sailor from losing his grip high in the riggings of the ship.

A Swallow tattoo was for a sailor who logged five thousand miles at sea. At ten thousand miles a sailor could add a second Swallow. Swallow tattoos were also thought to be good luck in finding land and in returning to your home port.

An Anchor usually meant that a sailor had sailed across the Atlantic Ocean.

A Sea Turtle showed that a sailor had sailed across the Equator

A Dragon tattoo showed that a sailor had sailed into a port in China.

A Golden Dragon was for sailors who had crossed the International Date Line.

A Rope Knot, was meant to denote a Four Knot Sailor, or one who had crossed the Equator, International Date Line, Arctic and Antarctic circles.

A Full-Rigged Ship meant that a sailor had made the passage around Cape Horn.

Traditionally, a sailor who had rounded Cape Horn was entitled to wear a gold loop earring — in the left ear, the one which had faced the Horn in a typical eastbound passage — and to dine with one foot on the table; a sailor who had also rounded the Cape of Good Hope could place both feet on the table.

Another tradition holds that the practice of wearing gold hoops or earrings among sailors was that should you drown at sea and wash up on a strange shore, the gold in the earring would pay for a decent Christian burial.

Another source says that in addition to the Full-Rigged Ship tattoo that a sailor was entitled to get for having rounded Cape Horn, he could also get a small blue star on the left ear. Five times 'round the Cape, and you could add a star to the right ear. And if you were a salty enough old sea-dog to make the perilous passage ten times, you were entitled to two red dots on your forehead!

A Pig tattooed on the top of one foot, and a Rooster tattooed on the top of the other foot - so that if the sailor did fall into the water they would quickly make it to land because it was thought that pigs and roosters couldn't swim!

A Shark tattoo was to prevent a sailor from being eaten if they fell overboard by the sharks that often trailed after sailing ships, especially whaling ships, looking for scraps. No sailor wanted to be dinner scraps for a shark!

Rock of Ages, and other religious imagery was often tattooed on the back to ensure that the First Mate might not flog you too badly.

Port and Starboard ship lights - Port (left) and Starboard (right) - were tattooed on either side of the body. It was also thought that such tattoos would help a sailor stay on the right course.

Nautical Star tattoos were to guide a sailor home.

Compass tattoos were also meant to guide a sailor home.

Propellers were tattooed on the buttocks to propel a sailor through life. Usually a tattoo favored by sailors who were stokers, and who shovelled coal deep in the belly of a ship to fuel the boilers that powered steam ships.

Rope, tattooed around a wrist denoted that the sailor was a deckhand.

Oil Here, around the belly button means a ship's engineer - or 'snipe'.

A tattoo of Crossed Anchors was meant to denote a Boatswains Mate.

Pin-up Girls, Hula Girls and Mermaids were all tattoos to remind sailors what awaited them in Port.

Mermaid tattoos were also thought to be lucky if you fell overboard.

See also: Bluebirds, Dolphins, Jolly Roger, JesusPolynesian Tattooing, Pirates, Praying Hands, Heart, Homeward Bound, Scripts and Scrolls, Skull and Cross Bones, Seals

Tattoo designs - N >> Nautical

Tattoo Symbol Index - A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

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