We are all aware that tattooing is an ancient method of body decoration which carries with it ties to a wealth of heritage and tradition. However, these days’ tattoos are more about self expression and the quest for individuality. When you think about how tattoos came to our shores from the South Pacific islands, Australia and New Zealand it was the sailors on these exploratory vessels that brought the passion for tattooing back with them. Sailors would often get a tattoo as a souvenir from the places they visited rather like a stamp on a passport. They became symbols of experience and fortitude. The tattoos that they would get would be rich in symbolism and meaning, generally relating to safe journeys and protection whilst they travelled the world’s oceans.
Though not always obvious or visible, even today’s modern sailors will have tattoos that celebrate superstitions that have followed mariners down through the centuries. For example one of the oldest sets of tattoos that offer sea farers protection is the pig and rooster. The pig is tattooed on one foot and that rooster on the other. Both of the animals depicted fear the water, therefore by having them on your feet; you should never be in the position of getting them wet and sinking, combined with the desire of the animals to be far from open water they would also influence the safe and swift return of a vessel to port.
Polaris, the North Star is another traditional tattoo, generally representing the theory that a sailor will always find his way into port and never be lost at sea. The traditional image of an anchor with its cable or chain entwined around it is known as a ‘fouled anchor’ and was traditionally used to illustrate that a sailor had successfully crossed the challenging Atlantic Ocean. Other anchor tattoos are symbols of strength and power, which when considering how much weight an anchor holds in place is a very good illustration.
A sailor with a set of blue stars on his hand has probably sailed around Cape Horn several times, adding a new star for each safe trip completed. In recognition of long distance travels and the immensity of the oceans, sailors who have crossed the equator during their journeys will be tattooed with a sea turtle. Images of swallows on the shoulder symbolise crossing the tropics of Capricorn and cancer. There are probably others whose meaning has been lost over the centuries too.
Non sailors may claim traditional sea faring tattoos for their own without realising the significance of them at all, adopting them because they look cool or want to present a certain image to their peers, which is a shame. Like many ancient cultures the tattoos of centuries of sailors have marked milestones and events in their lives, signifying transitions and achievements, overcoming immense danger and peril. Just like the ancient cultures of the South Pacific from where the original sailing expeditions took their initial inspiration.