HMS Friday: Stewed, Screwed, and Tattooed

by Mark Lukach

When sailors aren’t on a journey, they are on land with the intense focus of getting “stewed, screwed, and tattooed,” or so the saying goes.

The drinking (stewing) and the sex (screwing) I can understand. Sailors have long endured the loneliness and danger of lengthy voyages, and safe arrival at port is a cause for celebration. But how did tattooing get bundled into the party?

Tattooing has become almost synonymous with sailor culture. A 19th century study conducted by the United States Navy concluded that 90% of servicemen had at least one tattoo.* And at almost any tattoo parlor today, you will find countless options for nautical tattoos. Sailors and tattoos are like peanut butter and jelly, necessary complements to each other’s existence and purpose. But why?

It all started with the notorious Captain James Cook, the British explorer (some might say pirate) who traveled to Polynesia and New Zealand in the late 18th century. It was on Cook’s voyages that the first written account of tattooing was documented, although civilizations throughout the world had been inking long before the 1770s. Regardless, it was Cook who botched  he Polynesian word “tatau” in his journals, with the original word speculated to mimic the actual sounds associated with getting a tattoo.* (“Tat” would be the tapping of the instruments together, and “au” would be the sound of pain from the one getting the tattoo.)

Cook and his men not only got themselves tattoos as souvenirs, but being good European explorers, they brought some natives back with them to showcase their exquisite tattoos to the British gentry. The aristocracy loved it, and tattoos became the hottest trend in civility. Apparently, one of the highlights of 19th century salon parties occurred behind closed doors, when nobles would disrobe to showcase their tattoos.*

After tattooing’s co-option by Cook and his sailors in the 1770s, sailors have since adopted tattooing as their own complex language, a medium for boasting of their travels and coping with their superstitious anxieties. Many tattoos are bestowed upon sailors for marking accomplishments, and the practice of tattooing each other for life achievements has done much for creating strong bonds within the sailing community, critical for a lifestyle where matters of safety can hinge upon trust.

Nautical tattooing as an artistic style was codified by the artist Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins, who is such a bad-ass that his website needs age verification just to enter. He tattooed in Chinatown on Oahu as the island was transforming into a hub for US military operations, and had over 40 years to perfect his craft on countless military men. Although he died in 1973, he is without a doubt considered the the premiere nautical tattoo artist of all time.

Unfortunately, many of the meanings of nautical tattoos have been obscured over the years through wrongful interpretations, or flat-out ignorance of their meaning. The style has become increasingly mainstream and less exclusive to sailors. While it is impossible to create a fully exhaustive list of all nautical tattoos, I have sought to explain some of the most common ones. Many symbols have contradictory meanings, depending on which source you read, and some accomplishments have been associated with multiple tattoos. (For example, I have read of four different tattoos inked for crossing the Equator.)

Here are some of the biggies, broken up as either tattoos for protection, or else tattoos for landmark accomplishments. This is by no means an exhaustive list.

Symbolic Tattoos

image from twodolla

The Nautical Star: The nautical star is probably the most recognizable tattoo associated with sailors, although it has been subsequently used by various sub-cultures, such as gay pride communities and punk rockers. The five-pointed star is meant to symbolize the sailor’s reliance upon the stars for direction, most notably the north star, and was commonly tattooed on a sailor’s forearms as a symbol of good luck and hope to always get safely home. The star is often shown with one point facing upward to indicate the wearer’s optimism.

photo from tattoosnob

Pigs and Roosters: This is a strange one, but a classic. Whenever ships carried livestock, the pigs, chickens, and roosters were stored in lightweight crates, since the animals could not swim. As such, if the ship was to wreck, the pigs and roosters would float in their crates. Sailors took to tattooing these two animals on their feet, so as to ensure their own ability to float and survive if their ship was to wreck. While most pigs and rooster tattoos are on the top of the feet, some sailors would tattoo the animals to the backs of their legs by their knees, or else to the bottom of their feet. Sailors typically put the rooster on the right foot, because it was somehow believed to not only protect them from drowning, but to give them good luck in fights.

Photo from againstheresies

Hold Fast: This tattoo is branded across the knuckles of the sailor, and according to a blogging sailor with the “Hold Fast” tattoo, “the original intent was to prevent sailor’s hands from slipping on lines, or to secure yourself to the riggin’ when working aloft in weather.” The practice of tattooing words across one’s knuckles has been utilized with tremendous variety, with the most popular combination being “Love, Hate.”

Photo from Michelle Miller

Mermaids: Mermaids are like the pigs and the roosters: they are supposed to help you if you are in a shipwreck. But it’s also worth noting a mermaid’s obvious pornographic appeal, which leads to a whole sub-set of nautical tattoos that I won’t explore in-depth here: naked women. Suffice it to say, equally popular with mermaids were pin-up girls and hula girls, and it’s not hard to understand what sailors are intending when they get boobs tattooed on their arms.

Photo from tattoo symbol

Death Before Dishonor: This slogan is frequently depicted on a scroll wrapped around a dagger, and is an extremely popular military tattoo. The saying, “death before dishonor,” dates back as far as the Roman empire, and is a slogan associated with militaristic cultures like the Japanese samurai. The dagger is often patriotically displayed with the American bald eagle, and is pretty awesome. You better not even think about getting this tattoo unless you have served in the military.

Tattoos for Accomplishments:

Photo from Scuttlefish's own Monkeyfist

Anchor: The anchor is just as famous as the nautical star within sailor tattoos. Its original meaning is to recognize when a sailor first sails across the Atlantic Ocean. Today its meaning has been warped and generalized to represent various facets of sailing and ocean culture, but its original meaning is for the specific crossing of the Atlantic. On a symbolic side, anchors were reminders for a sailor to keep himself grounded.

photo from the Scuttlefish's own Monkeyfist

Swallow: A swallow was tattooed to a sailor after completing 5,000 miles at sea. It was typically on the right side of the chest. After 10,000 miles, a sailor could complete the pair. The swallow was also a symbol for safe arrival, as swallows are noted homing birds, and evoke concepts of loyalty and pride.

Photo from the Scuttlefish's own Monkeyfist

Sailing around Cape Horn: The accomplishment that has been most memorialized through tattooing has been for sailing around Cape Horn, because of how dangerous the passage can be. The first passing would typically lead to a Clipper Ship, another extremely famous type of nautical tattoo. The fully-rigged ship would often be paired with the phrase “Homeward Bound,” because when a sailor passed around the horn, it was often to finally head home. These tattoos are typically across the back or the chest.

According to Tristan Jones, the more you sailed around the Cape, the more you could tattoo about it. A word of caution about Tristan Jones before I relate his tale. Although he is one of sailing’s most famous storytellers, he is also an extremely unreliable historian. Every biography of Jones makes a pointed difference between what he “claims” to have done, with what he actually did. For example, he claims to have sailed 450,000 miles in his lifetime, which would make him the most traveled sailor in history. Unfortunately, the true number is more like 75,000. (Still impressive in my book.) Jones’ embellishments are well-documented, even at fan-based websites like The common attitude is of forgiveness, because his stories are so good, it doesn’t matter if they are real or fake.

So with this caveat in mind, Jones explains the significance of the nautical star tattoo on his left earlobe as indicating that he had sailed around Cape Horn 5 times. If he had made it 10 times, he would be entitled to a matching nautical star on is right earlobe. The trump card, the true mark of a great voyager, is to get a red star tattooed on the forehead, to showcase that you had rounded Cape Horn more than 10 times. This is a rare accomplishment. Our 21st century analogy is the 5,000,000 mile mark that George Clooney’s character seeks in air travel in the movie “Up In The Air.”

As Tristan Jones wrote in A Steady Trade, one of his many books,

“Mereddyd Philips talked little. He was in his late sixties and had rounded the Horn under sail fifteen times–he carried a big red start tattoo on his forehead to show it. There was, it was said, no waterfront pub in Hamburg or Liverpool that had charged Mereddyd for a drink in the past third years, nor in Bristol Harpbrug, Copenhagen, or Amsterdamn, either.”

Whether Jones’ story is true or false, if I saw a grizzled old man in his 80s with a red star tattoo in the middle of his forehead, I’d hedge my bets and buy the guy a drink.

The HMS Friday is a weekly Scuttlefish column written by Mark Lukach that explores the origins, meanings, and historical implications of ocean-related stories and myths. Special thanks this week to Michelle Miller for her help in researching nautical tattoos.

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