A Visual Guide to Sailor Tattoos: A Scuttlefish and Bowsprite Creation

by Owen James Burke

Compromised as they may seem, sailor’s tattoos once held significance, and occasionally they still do. In collaboration with Christina Sun at Bowsprite, we’ve put together a compendium of sailor tattoos and their respective meanings.

Hold written on one set of knuckles and Fast written on the other is meant to give a sailor good grip in the rigging.

A Rope tattooed around the wrist suggests a sailor is or was a deckhand.

A tattoo of an Anchor tells that a sailor has been a part of the Merchant Marines or crossed the Atlantic.

Crossed Anchors on the webbing between the thumb and index fingers are for a bos’n’s (or boatswain’s) mate.

Nautical Star or Compass Rose was traditionally given so that a sailor could always find his or her way home.

A Harpoon marks a member of the fishing fleet.

A Full-Rigged Ship displays that a sailor has been around Cape Horn.

A Dragon conveys that a sailor has served in China, and a Golden Dragon is given when a sailor crosses the International Date Line.

A Shellback Turtle or King Neptune is earned when a sailor makes it across the Equator.

Guns or Crossed Cannons signify naval military service.

A Sparrow or a Swallow tattoo goes to a sailor for every 5,000 nautical miles they travel–a swallow because it can always find its way home.

Royal Navy sailors during WWII who took part in Mediterranean cruises were tattooed with a Palm Tree, as were U.S. sailors who spent time serving the U.S. Military in Hawaii.

A Dagger Through A Rose proves a sailor’s loyal and willingness to fight anything, even something as sweet as a rose.

During WWII, Pig and Rooster tattoos (sometimes one on each foot) were worn to prevent a sailor from drowning. Pigs and roosters were boarded in crates that floated, and subsequently, were said to have been the only survivors of some wrecks.