Where Did Tattoos Come From?
Traditional nautical tattoos can be traced back to the English explorer, James Cook, who encountered the first tattoos while visiting Tahiti in the 1700s. Cook and his crew took home tattoos as permanent “souvenirs” during this first and subsequent voyages to the South Pacific. Thus, tattooed English sailors were soon appearing in port towns all over Europe.
The English word “tattoo” is actually derived from the Tahitian word “tatau,” meaning “to mark,” which Cook took note of after travelling there. Tattooing was very popular in the South Pacific; Fletcher Christian and George Stewart of Mutiny on the Bounty (1784) both had stars tattooed on the left of their chests. Perhaps these were early Nautical Stars.
Why are Tattoos So Popular With Sailors?
With only a small amount of space available for storage aboard a ship, often the most meaningful souvenir a sailor could carry was a mark upon his person. Sailors, particularly those in the 18th and 19th centuries, were known for being extremely superstitious. Often their tattoos of choice would reflect these superstitions, and were selected with the aim of alleviating their fears of drowning, becoming lost at sea, not receiving a proper burial in the case of death, etc.
Some confirmed meanings of traditional nautical tattoos include:
- Golden earrings, meant to help pay for a Christian burial should they die at sea or in a foreign port.
- Crosses on the soles of the feet to ward off sharks.
- Hinges on their elbows to keep them from having rheumatism and arthritis, sometimes going as far as adding a little oil can tattooed above the hinge so that the hinges would stay lubricated.
- Roosters and/or pigs on the ankles to prevent the sailor from drowning; most sailors couldn’t swim! These animals were often the sole survivors of shipwreck, since they were stowed in wooden crates, allowing them to float in the case of shipwreck.
- H-O-L-D F-A-S-T tattooed on each finger to insure a firm grip on lines, preventing a plunge overboard during a storm.
- Swallows, because they always find their way home.
- Dragon refers to a sailor that has served in China.
Want to know more?
Check out this full list of nautical tattoos and their meanings (not all of them confirmed).