Top Tattoo Cultures: Old-School Nautical Sailor Tattoos


In this new series of blogs, we’re going to take a look into different cultures and their styles of tattoos, from Bikers to Monks and everything in-between. This post is going to start with one of the most popular styles of tattoo that can still be seen today, Nautical Sailor Tattoos.



While tattoos don’t need to have a meaning, the sailors that wore these tattoos had special meanings for each of the designs that they wore. Dating back as far as the 16th century sailors have been seen sporting these ‘souvenirs’ of their travels, bringing them back from the Pacific Islands and back into Europe.

Sailors didn’t have access to tattoo supplies and would tattoo each other using an ink made from gun powder and urine and homemade tattoo machines! Grim. They also believed that gunpowder had some sort of mystical power that would protect them and provide them with a long life.


The collections of tattoos on a sailor’s body were worn for a number of reasons, mainly a memento to celebrate certain milestones during the voyage! Other main reasons behind some of these tattoos were patriotism, in remembrance of a lost crew mate, commemoration of triumphs made at sea and even to acknowledge the countries they had set foot on.

Tattoos were said to be a form of talisman to the sailor, and certain designs were trusted with warding off bad luck and bringing in good. As sailors work revolved around the unpredictable elements, many of them were very superstitious, and with life being at the mercy of the unfathomable sea they adopted the lifestyle of better safe than sorry.

Tattoo Meanings

So what are these tattoos? What do they look like and what do they mean?


These tattoos represented certain achievements in a sailor’s career.


sparrows and swallows were worn for every 5000 nautical miles travelled. They can also have different meanings and are still extremely popular in today’s society.


For the sailors in the navy an anchor was tattooed if a sailor was successful in crossing and returning home from the Atlantic Ocean. It was also considered as a sign of stability and unfaltering faith as the anchor was used to stabilise the ship. It was often tattooed with a banner saying ‘MOM’ or ‘DAD’ as a sign of staying grounded.


This was a tattoo that was sported by a sailor that had sailed to or served in a Chinese port.

Golden Dragon – There was an imaginary line on the earth’s surface following approximately the 180th meridian called the International Date Line. If this was successfully crossed the sailor would add a golden dragon to his collection.

A Fully Rigged Ship

If you see a sailor wearing one of these it usually means they have sailed around Cape Horn and live to tell the tail!


Tattoos were worn by the sailors to bring them luck whilst aboard the ships

Hold Fast 

This was often tattooed across the knuckles of sailors to remind them to hold on to the ships lines fast when the ship was passing through rough seas in bad weather so they weren’t thrown overboard!

Twin Propellers

This tattoo was often tattooed on the butt cheeks of sailors as it would prevent them from drowning, supposedly, as they would propel them to shore.

Pig & Rooster

 “Pig on the knee, safety at sea. A cock on the right, never lose a fight.” This tattoo symbolised safety and survival from a shipwreck. When carried on board, both these animals were kept in wooden crates so if a ship ever capsized the crates would float and the animals would safely float to shore.


These birds were used as tattoos to symbolise the hope that the sailor would always find their way home. This could mean back to your home, family or called home to God in death. These birds were believed to be the carriers of sailor’s souls when departing to heaven.

Nautical Star

Worn to represent the North Star and the ability to navigate the way home. This is still popular in modern tattooing.

Memento Mori

(In Remembrance)

Dagger Through a Swallow

 This tattoo was worn by sailor’s who had lost a comrade.

Pin Up Girls

These were worn as a reminder for the loved women the sailor’s had to leave behind when they left for the voyage.


Mermaids were a symbol of how enticing life at sea was, despite knowing the dangers that are associated with it. Mermaids, in

folklore, were said to seduce sailors into the sea and to their death, by luring them with their enchanting songs.

Hula Girl

 If a sailor visited Hawaii they got a hula girl tattoo. Simple as that.

This culture has brought tattooing to us in the western countries and since then it has become incredibly popular with one in five Brits having a tattoo. tattoo machines have developed and artists can reproduce picture-like quality tattoos. Keep your eyes peeled for the next look into another tattoo culture. Remember, Body Shock have a fantastic range of tattoo supplies for all your tattooing needs. Contact us now on 01922 744088 if you have any questions.