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

by Owen James Burke

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Harpoon marks a member of the fishing fleet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guns or Crossed Cannons signify naval military service.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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


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

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.