One of the most common groups to associate with tattoos is the military, but more precisely the Navy. Naval tattoos today run the gamut from gaudy to patriotic, and are usually created as a result of one superstition or another. As Americans, we automatically think of the United States Navy when talking about sailors, but the tattoo customs the USN follow come from international cultural exchanges that stretch far beyond the youth of the U.S. However, as Americans, we have taken traditional tattoo ideas and made them ours by melting various styles, imagery, and flair.
Naval tattoos are extremely difficult to trace back to the very first instance a sailor sat under the needle. It may be safe to say the unique genre dates back to 1769 upon the arrival of England’s Captain James Cook in the South Pacific amid his travels. Captain Cook’s voyage is accredited with bringing Polynesian tattoo styles to western culture and more specifically to naval culture. With the incorporation of bold tribal art, naval tattoos shifted from a usual religious connotation to a more symbolic, stylized, and superstitiously fueled art.
Sailors from all cultures experience similar situations and emotions. This connection may include positives and negatives such as sinking ships, fear of the deep, falling overboard, illness, poor navigation, and visiting new peoples. As a result, tattoos have evolved over time to encompass these shared experiences. Some common naval imagery includes:
- Anchors represent stability and security. Anchors are also commonly adorned with the name of a person who exemplifies a sense of grounding for the sailor wearing it.
- Nautical stars represent a sailor’s ability to keep correct navigation and stay on course. As a traditional symbol for the north star, it also symbolizes one’s ability to always find home.
- A Pig and Rooster tattoo represent an older sentiment of staying afloat amid the sinking of one’s ship. These two specific animals were chosen because they cannot swim, but usually seem to survive shipwrecks. Pigs and roosters were usually shipped in wooden crates that acted as buoys in the water until later rescued. This sentiment was shared and hoped for by sailors in the unfortunate case of a shipwreck.
- Swallows indicate a sailor had sailed 5,000 nautical miles. The bird is also associated with the eventual return home because of its’ expansive migration patterns. On a further note, swallows are believed to carry the souls of deceased sailors to heaven.
- Turtle tattoos indicate that a sailor has crossed the equator and has been initiated into King Neptune’s court.
- Dragons represent a sailor being stationed near China.
- Rope tattoos around the wrist mean a sailor was a deckhand.
- Harpoon tattoos mean a sailor was a part of a fishing fleet.
- Crosses positioned on the bottom of the feet are believed to ward off hungry sharks in he case of a shipwreck.
In the 1920s and 30s, Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins gathered his acquired knowledge from his travels in the U.S. Navy and personal life to create a style deeply enshrined in the naval tattoo genre. He merged Asian, Polynesian, and American styles out his shop based in Oahu, Hawaii. Due to his prime location for Navy traffic, many sailors wound up wearing Sailor Jerry art to commemorate their exotic 48 hour shore leave. Sailor Jerry’s fingerprint on the world of tattoos is still felt today within the Navy community and by those who admire his style. He is the Ed Hardy of his genre, and as such has further propelled tattoos into mainstream America.
From Captain Cook to Sailor Jerry, Navy art has built upon ancient tribal art, superstitions, and common experiences. The dissemination of cultural styles has greatly influenced far more than just naval tattooing. Captain Cook and Sailor Jerry are but two men who may be humbly thanked for shaping modern tattoo art today by simply learning from the world around them and sharing that knowledge with us.