Sailor Tattoos and Their Hidden Meanings

What’s the history and meaning behind sailor tattoos? The life of a sailor is full of adventures and mystery. The lure of the sea, heroism, risk, danger, and superstition. Traveling to far lands and meeting wild tribes and unknown cultures!

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For many years tattoos and sailors have been connected.

First written records of sailors and their tattoos are unknown. Also, dating back as far as the 16th century, there are testimonies of seamen who brought authentic tribal “souvenirs” from the Pacific islands back to Europe. In other occasions, the sailors gave each other tattoos when they were far from home. Written records from Captain John Cook from the 17th century speak about the tattoos that were observed on indigenous people.

Sailors marked their bodies with tattoos as badges of honor. The ink was also used for marking various personal and professional milestones.

Back in the day, old sailors had to make do with what they had. They tattooed each other using primitive methods. Presumably, sailors used gunpowder and urine for ink when they were at sea.

Also, many maritime men were superstitious. Their life and work revolved around the unpredictable elements. Their lives were always at luck’s mercy.

To stay safe, many sailors wore tattoos that they believed would ward off bad luck. Other symbols would bring them good luck, or so they believed. With time, sailors formed a steady system of logical and highly symbolic language.

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Sailor Tattoos Code

Today we still benefit from this, as many symbols and designs start their history from the sailor tattoos. A very large portion of maritime tattoos, however, were either image to used to mark a milestone in a sailor’s life and voyage or reminders, talismans or symbols of some sort. Of course, patriotic tattoos were also very popular.

We still navigate the stormy seas of life, more often than not counting distances, fighting the odds and striving for a piece of land at the end of the day. Old school sailor tattoos are a real inspiration. While we’re at it, we can learn a bit more about these amazing age-old symbols. Lets navigate through the meanings behind the most common sailor tattoos.

Nautical Tattoos – Meanings and Symbolism

Anchor: Generally, sailors get a tattoo of an anchor tattoo after crossing the Atlantic Ocean. An anchor can also bear other symbolic meanings. This is the most secure object on the ship. Its’ image serves as a symbol of stability and faith. Crossed anchors sometimes means that sailor was a boatswain and was responsible for both sea crew and ship equipment.

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a swallow (not to be mistaken with a sparrow) represents 5000 nautical miles traveled by the sailor.


A dragon image signifies that the sailor has served in China, or has sailed to a port in China. A golden dragon also means the wearer has crossed the International Date Line.


A turtle tattoo means the sailor has crossed the Equator.

Crossed Cannons

Two overlapping cannons means that the sailor had served in the naval military.


A set of dice means to show a fearless risk taker. It is also the choice of those who love to gamble.

Hula Girl

Means that the sailor had been to Hawaii.


A compass means hope that a sailor would always be able to find his way to the homeland.


A harpoon is a mark of belonging to a fishing or whaling fleet.

Hold Fast

The words “hold fast”, written out on the knuckles across both hands, means that a sailor would never let go of the rope. No matter what!


A symbol of guiding light. Often used to represent home and shelter, or God – “the guiding light”.

This is only a small part of the sailor tattoos symbol dictionary. Let’s see some visual reference for some extra inspiration!

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