The decades directly preceding the beginning of our beloved series marked the start of the tradition of sailors receiving tattoos on their voyages. While very few characters within the series are specifically referred to as having tattoos, it’s safe to assume many of the foremast jacks, if not the officers, were decorated with this new art form.
In 1769, on their first trip to the southern seas, some of the sailors in James Cook’s crew let the natives of Tahiti decorate their skin as a memory of their experiences in this foreign and strange culture. They were the first to bring those so called tataus, a former native ritual action, as a fashion statement to Europe. In the beginning mostly native tribal symbols were done, the forerunners of today’s tribal tattoos.
At the end of the 18th century tattoos were already popular amongst sailors and the British navy was the first to register some patterns.
The Russian Admiral Krusenstern wrote in his “Journey Around The World” (1805) about every man in his crew getting tattooed while at sea. Tattoos were so popular then that a professional tattoo artist who was brought on board could hardly get all the sailors tattooed. Samuel O’Reilly once said “A sailor without a tattoo is like a ship without grog: unseaworthy.”
Most of the tattoos were still done by natives on sailors and slowly the native tribal motives were mixed with the European designs. Symbols for the southern seas where they got their tattoos done, such as palm trees, exotic birds, ships, anchors, pin-ups or light houses were very popular initially. These maritime designs had deep symbolic meaning for each and every carrier. They also functioned as good luck charms. Nowadays those kind of designs and images fall in the category of “traditional tattoos”.
A lot of sailors learned the abilities of the natives and used them on their ships or on their shore leaves and also gave them on to others. This way professional tattoo shops originated in seaports all over the world. The owners of the shops were mostly former sailors who continued to apply the tataus in the traditional native way.
Some of the most popular traditional motifs and their meanings:
- A Light House, usually with the name of the sailor’s hometown, was supposed to bring him luck on his journey
- A Heart With Flames (Sacred Heart) stands for eternal love
- A Heart With A Dagger symbolizes an oath of vengeance
- Hold & Fast on the knuckles on both hands reminded the sailor to face danger courageously
- A Pig on one ankle and a Cock on the other supposedly protected the sailor from drowning since both animals cannot swim and would carry the sailor ashore quickly
- An Anchor meant the sailor had crossed the atlantic
- A Rigged Ship said the sailor circumnavigated Cape Horn
- A Dragon symbolized a voyage to China
- A Turtle showed the sailor had passed the equator
- A Golden Dragon symbolized the sailor had crossed the date line
Courtesy of Tattoo Joy. Intro and editing by your captain.
Dr. Maturin suggests further reading: