Despite numerous academic studies of various aspects of tattooing— sociological, artistic, psychological —the actual lore of this form of art remains largely non-academic and is often only based on oral tradition centred around certain tattoo artists and styles.

However, there is no dispute that tattooing was practiced in early societies in Europe and Asia, and by indigenous cultures worldwide for thousands of years.

Although there are indications that seafarers bore tattoos before the 1700s, Captain James Cook’s voyages of exploration in the Pacific during the second half of the 18th century exposed Royal Navy sailors to Polynesian body art.
These brought tattoos back to their fellow seamen in Europe and America. In fact, the word “tattoo” is derived from the Polynesian tatau, which indicated marking the human body and phonetically imitated the sound of the rhythmic tapping of traditional tattoo instruments (usually needles fashioned from boar’s tusks) used to pierce a subject’s skin.

Tattooing spread quickly from British to American sailors. Staving off boredom during long hours at sea, sailors doubled as amateur tattooists. By the late 18th century, around a third of British and a fifth of American sailors had at least one tattoo. Spurred by 19th-century whaling expeditions and long trading voyages, tattooing continued to spread among both naval and merchant seamen—and from them to landlubbers.

Vintage sailor tattoos often carried specific meanings, serving as symbols of experiences, beliefs, or superstitions. Here are some classic examples and their interpretations.

Swallows: Swallow tattoos are one of the most popular in the navy and have a number of meanings.
Each swallow represents 5,000 nautical miles in a sailor’s career. The circumference of the earth is 21,639 nautical miles – about 4.16 swallows.
A swallow with a dagger would be used as a memorial of a lost comrade at sea.
Swallows are known for their migration patterns where they travel long distances from home and back again, a swallow tattoo would also mean that a sailor could always find their way home.

King Neptune or a Shellback Turtle : Either of these incarnations signals the wearer has crossed the Equator and considers themselves to be a member of ‘King Neptune’s Court. 

King Neptune with sailors in an initiation after their first crossing of the equator – 1940s

Anchors: A sailor would get an anchor tattoo to signify a successful Atlantic crossing.
An anchor is also the most secure object on the ship so its image serves as an icon of stability. It conveyed strength and the sailor’s hope to remain grounded despite the rough seas. An anchor with a name in a banner shows that particular person gives them the reason to stay levelheaded.

Nautical Stars: This remains one of the most popular tattoos and it has several meanings. The tattoo is usually rendered as a five-pointed star with alternating colours to mimic the colours on the compass rose found on nautical charts.
The star symbolises the North Star which helped sailors to navigate out at sea.
It is a symbol of protection, guidance, and good luck.

Fully Rigged Ship: A fully rigged ship from the age of sail is one with three or more masts, sails fully deployed.
This tattoo was worn by those who had circumnavigated the treacherous waters of Cape Horn, on the Southern tip of South America.

Rope: A rope tattoo, particularly around the wrist, often indicated that the sailor was a deckhand who had the responsibility of maintaining the hull, decks, superstructure, mooring, and cargo handling on a ship.
When combined with an anchor, it reinforced themes of stability and reliability.

Compass Rose: This tattoo served as a reminder for sailors to always find their way and to maintain direction in their lives, providing guidance and hope.

Crossed Cannons: Two crossed cannons generally represented service on board a military vessel. It was a mark of honour and bravery.

Hula Girls and/or Palm Trees: These images were often inked to commemorate time spent in exotic locations, like Hawaii or the South Pacific. They served as reminders of paradise and adventure.

Pig & Rooster: With one on each foot (pig on top of the left foot, rooster on top of the right) this design originated in the Second World War as protection against shipwrecks or drowning.
It derives from livestock transported in wooden crates that would float if a vessel went down, often leaving the animals as the only survivors.

Crosses: In many variations—worn as a sign of faith or talisman.
When placed on the soles of the feet, crosses were thought to repel sharks.

Sharks: A shark tattoo might symbolise protection from the dangers of the sea or the sailor’s fearless nature. By wearing a shark tattoo it was thought to protect you from the perils of the ocean. Sharks have no natural predators and this represents a reluctance to be victimised by others.

Mermaids: A good luck charm and reminder of the dangers of the sea. Mermaids were said to lure sailors to their doom with their beauty and enchanting songs. This was a reminder that no matter how much sailors loved the sea it could be fickle and dangerous.

Hold Fast: One of the oldest examples of nautical tattooing, dating back to the 16th century.
These words are a charm spelled tattooed on the knuckles, “Hold Fast” was a reminder to sailors to maintain their grip on the rigging and stay strong during rough seas.

Golden Dragon: Indicated crossing the international dateline into the “realm of the golden dragon” (Asia).

Pin-up Girls: These tattoos represented a sailor’s love and admiration for the women waiting back home. They also symbolized beauty and femininity, providing comfort during long voyages.

Each of these tattoos was more than just body art; they were badges of honour, symbols of identity, and talismans meant to protect and guide sailors on their perilous journeys.