In many cultures, tattoos and sailors go together like ice cream and apple pie, with sailors being known for their often ostentatious and extensive tattoo art. Military personnel are frequently tattooed for many of the same reasons as sailors. Tattoos were once regarded negatively in the West because they were associated with sailors and other members of the underworld, rather than respectable people. Despite the fact that tattoos have become more acceptable in mainstream society and are becoming more common, it appears that tattoos and sailors will always have a special relationship.
For thousands of years, people have been tattooing themselves and each other. Tattoos have been depicted in works of art from many cultures around the world, and preserved bodies from bogs in Europe show signs of tattooing. Tattooing has thousands of years of history in some parts of the world; in Europe, it faded out with the rise of Christianity, disappearing until it was reintroduced none other than sailors. This helps to explain why tattoos are associated with sailors in the Western imagination.
As European sailors traveled the globe, they came across many tribes who had a history of tattooing, and sailors began to get tattoos as a way of creating a living souvenir of their journeys. Sailors returned to Europe with tribal tattoos as early as the late 1500s, flaunting them to other sailors and society in general, and tattoos were briefly fashionable among the European upper classes, along with a variety of body piercings that were also introduced to Europe sailors.
Sailors began to get tattoos to commemorate their voyages and the places they visited every time they traveled. They also learned tattooing techniques, and at this point, tattoos and sailors became inextricably linked, as sailors applied Western themes and designs to Polynesian and Asian tattooing techniques. With the development of a whole style of nautical tattooing, with a variety of symbols representing various things, a whole style of nautical tattooing emerged.
A lighthouse, for example, would direct a sailor home, whereas a turtle would indicate that a sailor had crossed the equator. A dragon was applied to sailors who crossed the international date line, and a sparrow was added to mark a specific sailing milestone, such as 5,000 miles (8,047 kilometers) of smooth sailing. Other examples of traditional nautical tattoos, as well as explanations of their meanings, can be found in nautical museums.
Tattoos and sailors are linked in the minds of many people in the West because sailors have a long history of tattooing, which has its own cultural context and meaning. People who are familiar with nautical tattoos can literally read a sailor’s body to learn about where he or she has gone. Members of the military have also adopted tattooing as a way to commemorate their own training journeys and milestones, and you’ll notice that port towns and military towns have a thriving tattoo industry.